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In this episode of the Customer Service Secrets Podcast, Gabe Larsen is joined by the Director of Customer Service at McKesson, Kenny Middlebrooks. Kenny’s a CX expert and is on a mission to help leaders simplify their CX in complex situations. Listen to the full podcast to learn more.
Filling in the Gaps with Different Skill Sets
The art of excellent CX starts with hiring the right talent. This isn’t always easy, especially when good talent can be hard to find. Talent comes in all shapes and sizes from a variety of backgrounds and according to Kenny, the key to a successful team is hiring agents who vary in skills and specialties. For example, if an agent’s really personable and good at speaking with people but not as technologically inclined, try hiring an agent who can fill in that gap who knows the technology well. Agents can then train each other on the things they do best, making for a well-rounded and efficient team. Diversity is what makes CX great because having more than one perspective can open doors for improvement that were never previously opened. As Kenny says, “We try to bring the best of those groups together to cross-pollinate information the best we can.”
Removing Roadblocks for your Agents
Part of any leader’s job is to make sure that their teammates are functioning and are well equipped to do their jobs. Leaders should be actively striving to remove roadblocks that stop agents from providing stellar CX. Common roadblocks for reps are not having the right technology set up to streamline processes and the fear of failure. For leaders looking to make their agent’s lives easier, Kenny advises them to “operate on what makes sense.” This means creating a safe space for agents to fail within reason. Agents should be trained and trusted enough to assess customer situations with company protocol in mind but to also make a judgment call on the best way to help the customer, based on their needs and on what makes the most sense in each situation.
“If you feel comfortable doing something, do it, and make sure you have the right thought process behind it.”
Keeping it Simple – Easier Said Than Done?
Providing the best customer experiences doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, Kenny tells leaders that they need to stop overcomplicating processes because it just makes for a stressful and unpleasant work environment. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean that simplified CX isn’t completely attainable. One of the best ways to keep CX simple is to have all of the data agents need where they need it, when they need it. Updated customer data is crucial for customers to have a seamless experience between agents with the brand. 95% of Kenny’s customers prefer to speak over the phone with his team, so when they call, it’s important that agents have all of their information on file. Rather than sending them up the “phone tree,” as Kenny describes, their experience with the company is kept simple, short, and to the point when agents can access customer data quickly. Then as agents are interacting with customers, they can update their information in real-time for future use. “We have to be making sure that we look at that knowledge article and we have to be updating that content as we go.”
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Full Episode Transcript:
Customer Experience Transformation with Kenny Middlebrooks
Intro Voice: (00:04)
You’re listening to the Customer Service Secrets Podcast by Kustomer.
Gabe Larsen: (00:11)
All right. Welcome everybody to the Customer Service Secrets Podcast. You got your host, Gabe Larsen and today we are talking with Kenny Middlebrooks. He’s currently the Director of Customer Service at McKesson. Kenny, thanks for joining. How the heck are you?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (00:26)
I’m great. Thank you for having me.
Gabe Larsen: (00:30)
Yeah, Kenny, he was nice enough to join up. I’ve been kind of stalking Kenny on LinkedIn and I finally got him. A really cool background. Obviously McKesson, I think is a fascinating company, which maybe he can talk about in just a second, but we will be talking about some of his experience, learnings in customer experience. But before we get to that, Kenny, tell us a little bit about what you’re doing over there at McKesson and maybe a little bit about your background?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (00:55)
So I think for the most part, the way that we look at, the way that we handle everyday situations is really about saving lives. The one thing about the work that we do from a patient and from a customer standpoint is all about making sure that in my world that prescriptions are delivered to patients on time. And it can’t really get any more simple than that.
Gabe Larsen: (01:24)
Yeah. The great thing is, I mean, yeah, when you’re talking about that type of work, it has that type of importance, right? I mean it’s, lives are at stake and I love that you kind of started at that. And then just so we understand, anything you can share, I mean, you’re from, before McKesson, what’d you do and then how many reps do you have or how many, how big is the team? What are we looking at? You guys located in one location? Anything you can kind of paint the picture on that for us?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (01:51)
So I’ve actually been with McKesson or several companies bought by McKesson for about 20 years. And so really and truly I haven’t done anything outside of this, starting at a very basic level one entry-level position, working my way up to this point as Director. A lot of my background has been in problem-solving. I have a mathematics degree and really and truly, that’s what I was, so long for when I first took on the position when I was 21 years old. So yeah. So I’ve been in this role for, been in customer service for a very long time, and really and truly, it’s not something I really want to get out of.
Gabe Larsen: (02:35)
Yeah, yeah. I love the mathematics background. You had mentioned that before. So much I think of this is kind of the triage, the problem solving, and certain numbers are never a bad thing I think as well. One other question, you mentioned mathematics. Maybe you’d use that, but anything outside of work that you’re passionate about? Any hobbies, crazy stories, high school band or something like that?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (03:00)
Well, I mean, there’s a couple of things. So currently I am working on becoming a more Friday night GHSA high school football official. That has its own process and its own rules and regulations and it’s a pretty big deal here in the South. A funny, great story really is how I met my wife. So my wife actually was a starting point guard as a freshman in college. And I met her as a college cheerleader. So it was a little bit of a role reversal from that standpoint. So I am actually dating the jock and she was dating the cheerleader. She went for the cheerleader. That’s not a story you hear every day.
Gabe Larsen: (03:50)
I got you. You threw me for a loop. So it wasn’t high, it was in college or in high school, college?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (03:56)
This was in college. Yeah. I was a college cheerleader and she was a college basketball player.
Gabe Larsen: (04:02)
But they don’t typically call them cheerleaders, right? It’s like a yell leader or something.
Kenny Middlebrooks: (04:09)
We were competition cheer. So we competed for national titles and I forgot what it was. I can’t remember the actual accreditation from a standpoint of cheerleading, but yeah, I’ve got a couple of pictures actually hanging over me right now that kind of prove the point.
Gabe Larsen: (04:28)
That is fascinating. That’s fascinating, man. I wish we had more time. I mean, I love customer experience, but you really, I might have to talk to you after the show to get a little more details on that. I love that. Well, man, you, every once in a while, someone will say something that’s really interesting. You have sparked my interest. So yeah, anybody who’s listening, if you want to know the rest of this story, you’re going to have to catch Kenny on LinkedIn. So let’s dive into the topic at hand. I want to talk about kind of your experience in customer experience transformation. You’ve obviously been doing this as you said for 20 years and I love that you’ve kind of come through the ranks. You’ve seen it on the front lines. You’ve seen it from leadership. I’d love to see if I could pull some of the experiences of best practices that you’ve learned over that journey. So let’s start with this idea. I want to start with people if we can. Always a big part of the way people think about transformation, where do you go? How do you see if you can get the right people on the bus and get them in the right direction?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (05:30)
I think a lot of it has to do with skill sets, especially when we’re doing and then we’ll go through the interview process. The problem that we run into a lot of times is because our business is a pharmacy. And it’s pharmacy and technology at the same time. We run into several situations where we can’t necessarily find that diamond in the rough because you can’t find too many people who, if they have pharmacy experience not working in a pharmacy and also having the technology aptitude to be able to handle the types of problems that we support every day. Our problem sets are for workflow pharmacy, from the time you drop a prescription off to the time it’s sold on a, say a point of sale system, we have to handle all the integrations, all the automation, all the interfaces, and dealing with PHI and HIPAA all at the same time, it creates an environment where the agent itself is going to be challenged no matter what type of problem they actually have.
Gabe Larsen: (06:31)
Yeah. That’s an interesting combination, right? It’s not just kind of the tech side of it, but that pharmaceutical, that adds a more complex layer than I think often companies run into. What’s been the secret to success? I mean, do you just go heavier on the specific more pharmaceutical knowledge, for example? Do you go heavy on IT? Finding that diamond in the rough sounds impossible.
Kenny Middlebrooks: (06:58)
I think we use a little bit of the, that’ll be a pretty pre reference about the Chicago Bulls bringing in Dennis Rodman for his rebounding capabilities. And we go through this ebb and flow of looking for the skill set that we least have at the time. So we will go through a process of, we’ll hire a lot of people who have like pharmacy tech background, so they understand the inner workings of the pharmacy and some of the terminology because it is different. And then when we find that we have a little bit heavy on the tech side, we’ll start to focus a little bit more on the technical aptitude side. And so what we do is we bring those two groups together. Now we don’t have a lot of, there are situations where we have pharmacy techs who can’t learn a technical aptitude. We have the same situations where we have technical aptitude who can’t necessarily learn pharmacy. So we try to bring the best of those groups together to cross-pollinate information the best we can.
Gabe Larsen: (08:01)
Hmm. Interesting. So many people have had adverse experiences during COVID with attrition and some people, I guess, growing. Culturally speaking, to curb attrition, anything you found in your career to really drive people to have that strong culture, stick with the company, et cetera?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (08:22)
I think it has everything to do with the managers, the supervisors, and even all the way up to myself is we really subscribe more to that servant leadership type of role where you want to make sure that we’re breaking down roadblocks for our employees so that they can answer the questions that our pharmacists have. And I think a lot of that just drives itself. Once the agency that not only do we have their back but where there working for them to make their work easier. It just kind of comes full circle every single time.
Gabe Larsen: (08:55)
Yeah. One of the things you’d mentioned as we were chatting kind of pre-show was this idea of empowerment and how you’ve tried to manage that in your career to watch out for the process. To find that balance between following process and empowering agents. Thoughts on that one?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (09:12)
I mean, it kind of, I’ll say that there are two forms of leadership that I’ll look at. It’s servant leadership from the standpoint of how do I make my employees’ lives better, but also it’s not necessarily a leadership style per se, but I also want to operate on what makes sense. I mean, there are too many situations where even before we started this conversation, we were talking about internal processes. I don’t want the internal processes to get in the way of us helping our customers, ever. And so even to the point of extending that branch of how do we give them a safe place to fail within reason, if you feel comfortable doing something, do it, and make sure you have the right thought process behind it. If you don’t feel so comfortable doing something, we have different variables that assist, whether it be chat, assist lines, those kinds of things that will give them the benefit of having that extra expertise along with them when they want to do certain things. A lot of it has to do with how do they know when to break a rule when they need to break a rule?
Gabe Larsen: (10:17)
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And that’s so hard to coach. I can only imagine in your world, it seemed like there was like an astronomical number. It’s like you have so many different types of problems. Then trying to map out some sort of dictionary of terms plus dictionary process, it’s really not very fathomable. It’s not very possible. So to find that way to navigate around that, but that seems hard. I mean, you are dealing with people’s lives. If they break the process, you send the wrong, it just seems like a slippery slope to empower too much, not follow the process. Any thoughts on finding the balance?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (10:57)
I think a lot has to do with it, and I’m actually quite surprised when I talk to other people, even in just other different types of call centers that don’t use a lot of knowledge or knowledge sharing. I mean, I even subscribed back to the day where I was carrying a three-ring binder around to carry notes and those kinds of things and once we shifted our focus away from that tacit knowledge, people holding information at their desks and really installing a really good knowledge program that’s centered around continuous improvement, and then every single time that we are looking at a problem, we’re looking at knowledge or updating knowledge. So the content always stays up to date. So there they have what they need to have when they need to have it.
Gabe Larsen: (11:44)
That makes a huge difference. Have you found good ways to do that? I think a lot of people struggle with that concept. To have gotten out of the quote-unquote, the three-ring binder is good. Knowledge-based articles that are internal. Is it some sort of Wiki? Is there any advice you’d give to others who are trying to get that information sharing out of the select few and into the hands of the many?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (12:04)
Yeah. So I would say, we’ve gone through three iterations of knowledge systems. I think that the biggest takeaway is managing the knowledge. We went through two situations where we’ve spent a good amount of resources to get not enough knowledge out of people’s minds task knowledge, out of notebooks, out of anything that we could find. And then you put it in there and then it goes stale and you have to have a solid management process to have continuous improvement on knowledge. And that’s why we really focus on at the time of the interaction with a customer, no matter what situation is, we have to be making sure that we look at that knowledge article and we have to be updating that content as we go because you never know when the person next to you is going to have that –
Gabe Larsen: (12:55)
Oh yeah. Yeah. So it is. It’s definitely crowdsourced, kind of real-time. Yeah. That’s cool. That’s good.
Kenny Middlebrooks: (13:00)
So that’s the biggest problem has always been the management of the content. It has to be done every day in every single phone call.
Gabe Larsen: (13:07)
Yeah, it is a great point because sometimes I think we get enamored by the shiny object and it’s like, look, technology, technology, technology. You got to manage the knowledge and the technology as well not to say, look, I know some products work better for others, but oftentimes I think we may be lean on that too much.
Kenny Middlebrooks: (13:26)
But even to that point, though, a lot of it turns into you end up having say 15,000 articles on a whole bunch of stuff you don’t have anything to do with anymore.
Gabe Larsen: (13:35)
Yeah. Yeah. It goes flat fast. That’s a good segue into technology. How has technology played a role? I mean, we just talked a little about the knowledge base, but sometimes this is a difficulty for large organizations that carry a name like McKesson. Like it’s not as, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, sometimes not as nimble. So you don’t maybe have the, everything at your fingertips. How have you been able to manage? You’ve been able to get through things that you have what you need? How do you think about technology to get that customer experience where it needs to be?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (14:07)
So we really look at technology based on what our customers need. So, I mean, obviously, I work with part of McKesson that’s more of the technology focus for the pharmacies. However, when it comes to the people who work in the pharmacies, they may not be as tech-savvy as say, somebody who’s ordering on Amazon now. They’re starting to become better at that, but still to this very day, about 95% of all our inbound traffic comes through the phone because that’s what our customers prefer. And so we’ve tried different forms of whether it be scripted results, robotics, AI, chat, we tried all of those things and they work for certain situations, but back to your point, we have about 22,000 problem categorizations that we wound up having to go through. It’s kind of funny to say it out loud. But what we want and that’s over like three or four products.
Kenny Middlebrooks: (15:11)
And when we were in kind of those types of situations, and I’ll give you my example where if I’m working with Amazon or if I’m working with somebody who says, you can pull a chat to ask a question, my questions are usually very direct, very specific about a situation. And it’s an easy answer. However, when you’re talking about a situation where a patient may be interacting with something that has something to do with the way that the pharmacy system itself is handling information between different vendors, between different database inputs, it’s not as simple as you putting it in the chat and expecting somebody to be able to spit out an answer.
Gabe Larsen: (15:54)
Yeah, it’s a little more complicated. But I think that sometimes we do, we run into that problem of there are so many channels nowadays. I mean, you mentioned, you know, chat and phone, but certainly some of these social channels, Instagram, Facebook, there are all sorts of ways to communicate with a company. But knowing your customer and it sounds like you guys have found that the customer wants to be 95% on the phone. Then you got to optimize that as much as you can. Have you found pretty strong what you feel like you’ve been able to go pretty deep on phone? Minimize phone trees, get some good routing type of stuff. Are you, how’s that work?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (16:30)
So what we usually do is minimize phone trees. That’s another thing that our customers are highly, highly upset about. If we wound up sending them through four or five different paths and you may or may not still get the right person. I mean, I’ve even had similar circumstances in my home life where I go through like five or six different phone trees for somebody I’m using in my home and I still don’t have the right person. So we really look at, back to the people aspect of it, our onboarding times are so long. And this reason is why it takes us, that’s the reason why we want to keep attrition as low as we possibly can and treat our employees the way that they should be treated. But also at the same point is making sure that when the pharmacy calls, they don’t wind up having to be on the phone more than 90 seconds before they get to the right person using one or two options.
Gabe Larsen: (17:30)
Yeah. So do you feel like, I mean, AI has become such a buzzword in the space and I’m sure it has crossed your path a few times, but what are your thoughts just in general on kind of this AI in the service center calls, contact center? Do you feel like it’s a little bit mumbo jumbo? What would you say?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (17:49)
I think if it it’s the right problem because we’ve looked at AI in several circumstances and a lot of times, what we find AI useful for is on back-end processing or back-end evaluations. But from our standpoint, when we’re working through a dynamic problem with a customer because we’re not in necessarily a normal call center. We don’t have two to three minutes of talk times. We have 15, 20, 30, sometimes hour-long talk times with customers. And those types of problems are not that dynamic. I would not ever expect AI to be able to handle that. Not anytime soon.
Gabe Larsen: (18:28)
Yeah, it’s true. I mean, it has. It seems that most people are finding more benefit than getting rid of maybe the lowest common denominator. Like I can’t find my password or something like that, for example. 20-minute conversations, that does sound like that’s, you’re in kind of a different world at the moment. Okay. One last question. I just wanted to, that I forgot I wanted to ask a little bit was oftentimes in contact centers, so much time is focused and spent on managing people’s time. Thinking through the, you have a little different scenario because again, your contact center, it sounds like isn’t just like one call, two minutes, 30-second call, it’s a little bit more strategic. But that adds that layer of complexity of around kind of time management, staffing correctly. How do you optimize around that thinking of the complexity you have with those real phone calls?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (19:31)
I mean, a lot of it is going to be some of the call center metrics. We really look at, we do a really good evaluation of how our agents are handling different types of problems on the phone. I think a lot of it still goes back to that knowledge capability because if they find something that doesn’t work, then they move to the next one and then the next one. And I’ll say this, this is more of a shout-out for what we call knowledge center service. It’s promoted across the industry. Is that we now make the problem description that our agents hear from our customers part of that knowledge articles. So it gives our knowledge system the better capability of finding that solution faster based on how the customer is communicating from. Because you and I talking to somebody in a support organization may say that the problem is this widget. And it may not be the internal one. So if we are searching for articles in our knowledge system that’s based on how the customer is saying the problem is, yeah, it drives us much faster to the resolution than anything else.
Gabe Larsen: (20:47)
Makes tons of sense. Man, it sounds like you’ve gotten some good progress on the knowledge base. That’s a lot. I mean, I interview experts, so I am not the expert. Having to talk to multiple people a day, that’s a challenge that a lot of companies face. So Kenny really appreciated the talk. I love the talk track. Very interesting to hear your experience over the last X number of years, trying to kind of solve this ever ongoing challenge of improving and optimizing the customer experience. You have some complexities that we hadn’t heard yet that I do think to make it, yeah, everyone has unique challenges, but you guys certainly have yours. Just my last question that I want to kind of move to the end here is, talked about a lot today. As you think about those customer service leaders like yourself in a variety of industries who are looking, any summary statement or kind of recommendations you would say, man, if you want to get that service level to a place you want to be, don’t forget X or start here? Any thoughts on that?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (21:48)
Don’t make it too complicated. I mean, like when I go back and I was talking about what makes sense type of mentality, I mean, that has solved so many different types of problems where you wing up having four or five different ideas about how something should be done, but does it make sense? I mean, if you overcomplicate anything or if you’re trying to tree out something that you don’t know a hundred percent, you can’t guarantee a hundred percent of the time that you’re going to get to the right answer. Then it doesn’t even make sense to put that much complicated internal process to anything. We try to make it as simple as possible, not only with, I mean, with 22,000 different types of problems, it can’t be too much more difficult than that. But everything that we try to do is a streamline, not only the way that we’re contacted, the people, they can get to the right place at the right time. And just making sure it’s as simple as we can make it to get a problem resolved.
Gabe Larsen: (22:47)
Yeah, yeah. Keep it simple, stupid. Isn’t that what they say? Keep it simple, stupid.
Kenny Middlebrooks: (22:53)
Pretty much the way we go.
Gabe Larsen: (22:55)
Easier said than done man because it does, I mean often times you want to keep it simple, but it gets harder. Devil’s in the details. Cool. Well, hey. Again, really appreciate the talk track. Fun to have you and your unique perspective with us today. If someone wanted to continue the dialogue, learn a little bit more about some of the things you’re doing, what’s the best way to do that?
Kenny Middlebrooks: (23:14)
I think the best way would be to reach me on LinkedIn.
Gabe Larsen: (23:17)
Awesome. Awesome. And we’ll make sure we include that in the notes. Kenny, thanks again for joining. For the audience, have a fantastic day.
Exit Voice: (23:30)
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