How Automating Call Centers with Conversational AI Can Reduce Costs in Healthcare
Each year more than $1.3 trillion is spent on 265 billion customer service calls worldwide.
By and large, the heftiest expense of any call center is the cost of labor. CloudTask places the total expense of salaries and benefits for an average in-house call center at up to $141,284 yearly. Hiring costs run around $20,645, while office space can cost about $48,000, and software and hardware can run up to $3,600, put together we’re looking at $213,529 annually.
These figures, already imposing, are inflated due to the most common pain point shared by all call centers: a notoriously high turnover rate. According to F. Curtis Barry & Company, employee turnover in the majority of call centers is alarmingly steep, reaching anywhere from 25% and up, with many hovering around 40%-50%. In some extreme cases, turnover may be as high as 90%-100%. The Center for American Progress estimates the cost of replacing a frontline employee to be about 20% of a full annual salary. For a Call Center of about 50 employees, this could translate to more than $100,000 yearly in turnover costs.
Why is this happening?
In a word: burnout.
There's a host of factors that contribute to call center agents experiencing burnout at a higher percentage than others, but most experts seem to highlight four main reasons:
- Boredom: call center representatives tend to find themselves answering the same set of questions day in and day out. Customer concerns can generally be bucketed into predictable categories or Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). The repetition involved in solving identical issues from thousands of customers can quickly paint the role in a monotonous hue. Focusing on simple FAQs also means less time for more complex, expertise-building issues.
- Insufficient training: A sky-high turnover rate is not only detrimental to the company's bottom line but also towards the quality of training for new employees. Call center managers eager to fill reemerging vacancies often sacrifice thorough, well-rounded training for the rushed placement of agents on phone lines, leaving their new hires under-equipped to excel at their positions.
- Inflexible and taxing working hours: As the market urges businesses to adopt a customer-obsessed approach, call center agents end up bearing the brunt of 24/7-service expectations. The average shift length for call center agents stands at eight hours a day, but due to surges in calls, and endemic absenteeism (contact center workers are absent roughly 8.2 days per year, which is higher than other industries at approximately 7.4 days per year), shifts are prone to overextending.
- Overload and stress: As per HubSpot, in a well-operated call center, the average agent takes at least 50 calls a shift. The very nature of the role dictates that a decent proportion of these interactions will be intense and oftentimes exasperating. The combination of frustrated customers and an excessive volume of calls can be draining and, at times, demoralizing.
The Healthcare Conundrum
In March, on the heels of the WHO declaring COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic, the Washington Post reported a more than double increase in waiting times for healthcare call centers and crisis hotlines. Perhaps more than any other sector in light of the sudden and destabilizing COVID-19 crisis, healthcare call center agents have been facing unprecedented spikes in calls from confused and concerned patients. This month, as vaccination rollouts occur nationwide, healthcare organizations are projected to experience a 250-500% call volume increase to their call centers.
These arduous conditions: unpredictable call volume upticks, and high stakes calls, are chipping away at the quality of service healthcare organizations provide their patients. As reported by Kevin V. Nguyen of 8X8 13% of calls in the healthcare industry are disconnected before the caller is routed to an agent, and 67% of callers hang up the phone because they are frustrated at not being able to speak to a representative.
The implications of patient experience and service in healthcare have a resounding impact on an organization's bottom line. Research by Accenture found that hospitals in the US that provided a "superior" patient experience gained net margins that were 50% higher, on average, than those that deliver an "average" customer experience. Researchers also noticed that the correlation between exceptional customer service for patients and improved profit margins occurred over time. "The extent that hospital margins increased with a 10% improvement in consumer experience scores grew 70% over six years, from 1.04% in 2008 to 1.72% in 2013," Accenture stated. According to researchers, a hospital system with $2 billion in revenue would need to cut 460 jobs (for individuals with an average salary of $100,000) to gain the same 2.3% margin benefit that superior customer experience provides for revenue growth.
Reducing Costs with Conversational AI By Mitigating Agent Burnout and Turnover
At its core, conversational AI is designed to handle day-to-day queries and tasks that can quickly wear out humans in large proportions. Tapping into a healthcare provider's relevant data sources (e.g. FAQ web pages), as well as external trusted resources (e.g. CDC's guidelines), a conversational AI platform can offload repetitive duties from human agents such as scheduling appointments and troubleshooting recurrent issues, allowing them to focus on more complex, sensitive assignments.
Although the widespread adoption of conversational AI has some concerned that it will replace humans, the truth is that at its best, it serves as an amplifier of their capabilities. This is especially true for call centers, which, as was previously mentioned, suffer from the rushed training of newcomers, born of mounting turnover rates. On more than one occasion we’ve been forwarded emails from our clients containing screenshots of agents making use of our conversational AI assistant to answer patient questions.
Additionally, conversational AI virtual assistants are available 24/7, which opens up room for flexible, more convenient hours for agents, significantly decreasing attrition. Moreover, conversational AI solutions can reward healthcare organizations with a 40% deflection rate to their call center, dramatically easing the burden on their representatives. A Tellus International study revealed that conversational AI platforms for healthcare call centers garner average time savings of more than 4 minutes per inquiry, which amounts to cost savings of 50-70 cents per interaction.
Watch below as a conversational AI voice assistant helps a patient with FAQs regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and proceeds to schedule a vaccination appointment for the patient with zero human intervention.
Reducing Costs with Conversational AI By Supercharging the Patient Experience
In a comprehensive 2018 survey by Black Book Research, 92% of healthcare consumers surveyed said that improving customer experience should be a top strategic priority for medical providers over the next twelve months, increasing from 71% in 2017.
Consumers reported a desire for advanced technology that will allow them to engage with digital provider tools (93%), as well as offer a variety of virtual access points (85%), online scheduling (97%), online payment options (92%), and/or provide price transparency (94%). 90% of patients no longer feel obligated to stay with healthcare providers that don't deliver an overall satisfactory digital experience, and 88% of respondents under age 40 said they would choose their next medical provider based on a robust online presence.
Digital-first patient engagement, experience, and access is no longer ‘nice-to-have’ but a crucial determinant of success for any healthcare system. Despite the popularity of sites such as WebMD, 72% of patients still feel that their general practitioner (GP) is their information source of choice for health-related questions. For the foreseeable future, patients will continue to turn to their providers to alleviate their health concerns, and at the same time, will grow even more discerning with the quality of service they desire. Conversational AI platforms either embedded as voice assistants within a call center or situated on a provider's website can furnish patients with the speedy, easy-to-access information and assistance they demand.
A Conversational Future
Call centers are not going anywhere, but the proliferation of conversational AI as a patient engagement tool is predicted to grow exponentially. Juniper Research reports interactions with healthcare chatbots driven by artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to surpass 2.8 billion per year by 2023. Furthermore, the veteran research firm concluded in its Digital Health: Disruptor Analysis, Country Readiness & Technology Forecasts 2018–2023 report that AI-powered chatbots are expected to save healthcare systems worldwide about $3.7 billion by 2023. As we progress further into the 2020s, the prosperity of healthcare organizations will be defined by their ability to maximize the potential of patient engagement strategies that perfectly fuze call centers and conversational AI.