Coping With Budget Cuts During Tough Times

By Joanne M. Cawley

In today’s economy, everyone is pinching pennies and watching costs. From large corporate CEOs to small business owners, regardless of the industry, people are nervous about budgets and bottom-lines. It is hard to predict how much longer this downswing will last, but until the markets start rising again, it seems everyone is holding their breath.

In the healthcare industry, many call centers are faced with a common problem: offering free advice to patients who do not need to seek immediate medical treatment. Although it is a “nice thing to do,” healthcare executives see potential income going down the drain. So what can you do to avoid budget cuts in your call center? More than you may think!

Plan Ahead! The services your call center provides are extremely helpful to the public. Without a consistent revenue flow, it may be hard for your management or hospital administration to justify spending money without a solid plan for earning it back. Prior to adjusting your current call center programs, review all aspects first and decide what you want to achieve with the call center. It is helpful to develop a plan that aligns the services of your call center with your organization’s overall objectives.

Once you have determined on which services you need to focus, begin communicating with your organization’s marketing, IT, and finance departments. Make them aware of your budgets, equipment, and staffing. Determine what you need from them in terms of support and resources. Make sure you can communicate a value proposition to them about what they will gain by supporting you. Plan ahead before meeting with these departments and carefully do your homework. Use the following checklist to help you prepare:

  • Call center evaluation report including budget, equipment, and staffing
  • Description of triage and marketing functions currently offered
  • Listing of staff reporting responsibilities
  • Current job descriptions and pay grades
  • Detailed explanation of formal guidelines and procedures

It is better to take this proactive approach than to be left out of senior management decisions. If you wait, you may find your budget significantly cut with no explanations.

Additional Tools: If you use a revenue reconciliation program, be sure to discuss exactly what types of financial reporting are considered useful prior to running reports. “Revenue trackers can really help, but you must have buy-in from the executive teams in advance to make sure the formulas used to calculate return are accurate and accepted,” says Kathy Divis, President, Greystone.Net, Inc. As with any reporting software, be sure to understand how the results are calculated should you be called upon to explain the outcome.

Can You Please All the People All the Time? Some healthcare administrations reduce costs by reducing or eliminating call center services like triage. Many call centers are changing the focus of their services from triage to marketing programs and services to bring in revenue. With call centers under a watchful eye, many are counting on programs such as disease management, class registration, and health screenings to bring in new patients while retaining existing patients.

On the other hand, if your call center is offering triage services, you are undoubtedly providing an extremely useful service to the population you serve – a service upon which many people depend. Proving the value of a triage service by demonstrating its ability to affect both soft ROI (return on investment) like loyalty and satisfaction, and direct financial ROI is important. Be prepared with revenue reports that link your services to the organization bottom line.

Although you may not be able to control the final decision, you can offer suggestions to keep triage part of your call center. Consider a compromise such as offering triage services after-hours only on a trial basis or look for alternative funding and revenue sources. See if there are ways to offset costs by bringing in revenue producing contracts. Be open to other ideas and alternatives. You may even try recruiting your staff for a brainstorming session.

Bottom Line: It should not be a surprise when programs and budgets are cut during tough economic times. Eliminating costly items saves the organization money, thereby improving financial stability. Although being handed down a reduced budget may feel personal, don’t view it as such; it’s business. Your best protection is to be prepared to prove how your call center adds value and contributes to your organization. Be flexible and think creatively!

Joanne M. Cawley is the Marketing Communications Specialist for McKesson Health Solutions.

[From the Summer 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]