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A Valencia service always on call

Posted: March 11, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 11, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Century Communications Network founder and CEO Alexsandra Martin and general manager Jeff Wilson in the operations center in Valencia. Century Communications Network founder and CEO Alexsandra Martin and general manager Jeff Wilson in the operations center in Valencia.
Century Communications Network founder and CEO Alexsandra Martin and general manager Jeff Wilson in the operations center in Valencia.
The company recently moved to the Santa Clarita Valley from Sherman Oaks. The company recently moved to the Santa Clarita Valley from Sherman Oaks.
The company recently moved to the Santa Clarita Valley from Sherman Oaks.

There are lots of stories every day from the Santa Clarita professional medical-answering service. In fact, there could be a book about those stories, according to one local employee.

Alexsandra Martin, who founded Century Communications Network in 1984, moved the medical-answering service from Sherman Oaks to Valencia on Jan. 23.

Planning the logistics of moving a company that answers phones 24/7, 365 days a year was huge, said Jeff Wilson, general manager and with the company for the last 14 years.

"It took three months of planning, but the move went flawlessly. There wasn't even a glitch," Wilson said. "The clients didn't even know we moved."

Meticulously planned, everyone showed up and did exactly what they supposed to on the day of the move, he said. Several vendors were involved in the transition, from network people to installers, electricians, service providers of their T1 lines and more.

"We ran live at two locations for about 45 minutes," Wilson said.

But when the firm first opened its doors 28 years ago, a move like this would have been much easier to plan.

"When I started, we were on phones and using paper," Wilson said. "We later moved to a computerized system that integrates with a personal computer that also allows us to do texting to the doctor's smartphones."

Logistics of moving
Relocating the business to Santa Clarita was an easy decision for Martin. But there were other incentives, as well.

"We got a much bigger space in a newer building for less money," Wilson said. "And the Enterprise Zone tax benefits are helpful."

Moving into nearly 2,800 square feet of space, Century Communications Network manages nearly 1 million calls per year, and works with some 500 doctors, including those in private practice to large medical groups at UCLA and Cedars-Sinai, Wilson said.

Services range widely from answering patient calls to booking appointments for doctors and arranging organ transplants.

Employing up to 25 people, the company only lost six employees as a result of the move to Santa Clarita. And it was able to quickly recruit four people from the local area to fill those openings. The company's operating budget runs around $750,000 per year.

But managing over 317 accounts - each having its own preference for how to handle calls, patients and when to contact a doctor - is no easy task.

"Some of the accounts we've had for years and years," Wilson said. "We know what they want, and it sometimes requires us making a judgment call. Some doctors don't want to be called unless the patient is dying."

Staffing a 24/7 operation requires having employees who are good listeners and possess a high level of patience and the ability to make common sense decisions.

However, managing the business successfully requires a lot of training.

Training grounds
It takes about a year for an operator to become efficient, Wilson said, and the company provides continuous training to ensure all calls are handled appropriately. And handling some of the calls can be frustrating. Working the calls can also be an adrenaline rush when it becomes necessary to help assemble an organ-transplant team.

"What differentiates us from our competitors is that the owner is here just about every day and directly involved with training," Wilson said. "We even work the system if we have to, and really keep a very close eye on the employees even if they've been here two months or 20 years."

The people that work at Century Communications Network are not receptionists, he said. They are not just recording names and numbers.

It takes a full month before a new hire is even comfortable working their phone and computer system. Often, during this period, the employee will handle calls from people who are sick or cranky. But the new hires are never alone; they always have a supervisor with them.

For those really tricky calls, Wilson and Marton are on call 24 hours a day and prefer to handle really delicate calls so that no mistakes are made on an account, Wilson said.

As for working graveyard shifts, only the most experienced employees work during those hours. They have to be decision-makers. The company has been fortunate to have people who have been with the company 16 to 25 years covering midnight shift, Wilson said.

So what keeps the employees in what can at times be a high-stress environment?

"We pay our employees more and they receive benefits," Wilson said. "The typical turnover in this business is 50 percent, but our turnover rate was only 7 percent in 2011."

As for the client-turnover rate, according to Century Communications Network, it has beaten those industry trends, as well.

"The turnover rate is typically 20 to 30 percent.
Our rate runs 2 percent," Wilson said. "We take care of the clients and take care of the employees."

Even with a highly trained staff, however, things can go wrong.

Operating 24 hours a day is sometimes a challenge, Wilson said. The company has to make sure its system is maintained and running and does so by having battery backups and generators. The service once went down once after the Northridge earthquake for 15 minutes.

"But we can actually flip a switch so callers can get an emergency message if we have to evacuate the building, and we can funnel all our calls to another state in the event of a major emergency so doctors and patients are never left without a service."

Over the years, Century Communications Network has had plenty of practice working under emergency conditions. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the company was located in Century City, which was actually occupied by National Guard troops to protect businesses from looters.

"We went out and found a Jack in the Box on Santa Monica Boulevard open and stocked up on food to feed our staff," Wilson said. "And then there was the Northridge earthquake in '94. The city was a mess."

During the recent windstorms, a transformer behind
the company's former office went out. But within minutes, using its backup generator, the company was back in business fielding calls.

In the midst of all the drama, however, there are lighter moments.

Lighter moments
One doctor mistakenly forwarded all the calls to his phone to a McDonald's restaurant for a whole
weekend, Wilson said. It's unclear if McDonald's employees took messages, but patients couldn't reach the doctor at all, Wilson said.

And one time, the company even handled all the phone calls for contestants on the television game show "Love Connection."

Then, there was the irate man who called and insisted he had an appointment with one of the OBY/GYN doctors and could not be persuaded he had the wrong doctor until an operator asked the man "if he was pregnant?"

The company has also managed its share of celebrity clients - both patients and doctors.

"We've had calls for liver transplants for certain celebrities; handled calls for the doctor of a U.S. president who once lived in Southern California; and even been part of some high-profile celebrity trials working with doctors who testified in cases," Wilson said.




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