The hot topic for Medical Information professionals now is out-sourcing. There’s been a number of presentations at various DIA Europe, PIPA and DIA US conferences over the years. So many companies in the US outsource their first-line telephone calls that hardly anyone in the 300 strong audience at the DIA Medical Communications conference in Hilton Head Island (March 08) put their hand up when asked if they take calls from customers. Certainly there are plenty of vendors offering out-sourced services exhibiting here.

But what about off-shoring? The recent Oscar and multiple-award winning film Slumdog Millionaire showed us a glimpse of what life is like in a call centre in Mumbai with the rows of workstations, headsets, CRM systems and chai wallahs.

Joanne Gibson, Pfizer Inc. gave her perspective on contact centers: past, present and future. She related her first hand experience of using an off-shore operation in India. Out-sourcing had already been considered since it offered significant advantages on cost whilst also raising customer satisfaction levels (including offering a 24/7 service). However off-shoring part of the first level contact center was one of the options that was chosen. Although it offers significant cost savings (10:1 is not an unrealistic figure) versus outsourcing, it also offered a flexible solution. As Pfizer is a global organisation and patients come from all parts of the world, a global solution seemed reasonable.

However it is not without risk.

The long-distance communication has inevitable problems. Add in extra travel, training issues plus cultural and language barriers and there’s some significant challenges. The risks could be minimised as much as possible by being clear about the objectives of the off-shored service.

So how did it go? The transition was not as easy as just outsourcing to a US vendor. For example the contact center agents had to understand the complexity of the US healthcare system and pharmacy chains, health information data privacy laws (HIPAA), Medicaid and Medicare etc. The depth of training needed for agents to really understand the customer needs was considerable What was needed was patience and endurance. So one lesson learnt was that this had to be a long-term goal – the realistic time frame is 2 years, not 6 months. Critical success factors included retaining oversight for training, quality and accountability and choosing an experienced vendor. Successful resolution of issues by agents is essential to customer satisfaction. If a customer has a bad experience yet has that problem successfully resolved, 95% will return. However 35% will never return if you are not successful in resolving a problem. From their customer satisfaction surveys, they know that the off-shore operation meets their goal.

Inevitably many people wanted to know more; the Indian operation is predominantly used for the easier questions that can be answered from FAQs. As it is staffed by pharmacists and MDs who have been highly trained, staff turnover has been an issue (60-100% in one year). Tempted by competitor vendors by cash rewards, the lure to switch is too great.