Jessica Kaufman, lead voice portal specialist at Blue Shield of California, takes call center efficiency and monitoring to a whole new level. Frustrated by the time spent commuting to Blue Shield's call center in El Dorado Hills, Calif., she opted to use wireless technology to stream live calls from the center directly into her car during her drive. This sort of "solutioning," as she calls it, enables her to spend time on something productive that would otherwise be lost. It's that sort of constant search for ways to improve situations and make things more efficient that is Kaufman's trademark, to the point where her job description lists "to be an agent of change" as just one of her responsibilities.
When Kaufman came to Blue Shield of California in 2000 to work as a customer service representative, being an agent of change and promoting contact center efficiency were the last things on her mind. "I started in this industry looking for anonymity," Kaufman said. She had worked in administrative roles within hospitals while seeking a degree in nursing and realized that she couldn't separate herself emotionally from the patients. She knew that nursing was not the right profession for her, but she still wanted to be in the healthcare field.
Blue Shield was a very welcoming place for Kaufman, but it wasn't always perfect. She recalled dealing with day-to-day issues the customer had to endure, where she and her co-workers were forced to implement workarounds and lengthy, repetitive processes. But, because Blue Shield encourages its employees to speak up and find ways to fix broken systems and improve imperfections, Kaufman started making suggestions for improvements. She showed a keen eye for finding efficiencies and improvements to internal processes. As a result of constantly taking initiative, Kaufman moved up within Blue Shield quickly; by 2006, she was a call center supervisor. At that time, she was approached about the possibility of becoming a subject matter expert on customer interaction.
"They were struggling with this piece of the project," said Kaufman. "They had data management experts and professional user interface designers, but what they were missing was the translation of how the data needed to be utilized to meet the customer interaction expectation."
They needed someone who could translate the human needs of the customers into something you could quantify or put on a computer screen. As Kaufman had a good understanding of both the needs of the customers and back-end systems, she was a perfect match for this project.
The project was a huge success. While it had been predicted that Blue Shield would experience return on investment (ROI) after three years of implementation, it took only eight months for Blue Shield to experience ROI. Kaufman was promoted as a result of her role in the project, but, according to Kaufman, the biggest winners were the customers.
"The project provided us with the insight we needed to understand and look into the customer experience holistically from end to end," she said. Kaufman then found her calling as both an agent of change and a tireless advocate for Blue Shield's customers.
Agent of change
Kaufman spends every day evaluating Blue Shield's customer engagement process and looking for ways to improve it. In this, she frequently attempts to get into the perspectives of either the customer or the representative when evaluating processes.
"I have always required myself to provide live call observation," she said. "It's necessary for us to remain in-tune with front line operatives and understand customer pain points." Among the first changes Kaufman made when she found herself in a leadership position was to require all analysts she manages to spend at least eight hours every month listening in on Blue Shield's customer service calls. While she allows them to do this remotely rather than on the customer service floor, what she wants is for them is to see the relationship between the representative and the customer and try to understand what the customer is feeling when they call in. "If your analysts aren't connected to the customer experience -- the joyful or painful moments that your customers are having -- it's my opinion that they're much less effective," she explained.
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In addition to fostering understanding between different departments within her company, she has helped with understanding with customers. After noticing chronic conflict between the customer service department's leadership and Blue Shield's IT department, she decided it was time for the two divisions to come together and talk out their problems. When she talked about how she approached this conflict, she compared the departments to Star Trek characters -- Dr. Spock, with his cold, rational exterior for the IT department, and Captain Kirk, who possessed a heroic, heart-filled persona for customer service.
The IT department needed to feel that its expertise and skills were valued, while the customer service department needed them to comprehend the human side of the business. "Each department has their own language," says Kaufman. The trick was getting them to understand each other. Kaufman not only acts as a liaison between these different departments, but also specifically seeks out analysts who can help the two teams understand each other.
Speaking frankly about the importance of this, she said, "[You have to] respect and learn about both sides and get them to understand they're saying the same thing, it just sounds different. Having analysts who can do that has been [vital] to our success."
When asked how she's managed to create such change in a large organization like Blue Shield, she responded that persistence has been her secret. Kaufman refuses to take no for an answer and asks people to remember that just because a plan is not viable today doesn't mean that it won't be in the future. She points out that organizations, technologies available and the times all change. Ensuring that other members of the organization are open to change is an important part of Kaufman's role, along with making sure that Blue Shield remains competitive and agile in providing the best customer experience possible.
Another key to both Blue Shield and Kaufman's success is the simple principal of remembering why the company is in business in the first place. According to Kaufman, ensuring that everyone in the organization understands who the customer is and that they're the most important part of the business is an absolute must. "If you can do that, you'll be in a good place," said Kaufman.
This was first published in August 2013