With Increased Competition and More Patient Options, Providing Excellent Customer Service Is More Important Than Ever
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
I’ve covered various aspects of the call center industry, focusing here on healthcare contact centers, for the past 20 years. A persistent and reoccurring theme throughout this time has been customer service. This, I’m confident, will continue to be an essential focus for our industry going forward.
Every telephone interaction we handle is a form of customer service in one way or another. Though I delight in sharing those customer service interactions that went extremely well, too often I find myself detailing customer service failures.
During the past two decades, I’ve written hundreds of articles that address this critical topic of customer service.
Now, I’ve compiled the best of these articles, along with fresh content, in my book Sticky Customer Service. Just as with my articles, Sticky Customer Service celebrates customer service successes and explores customer service disappointments. We can learn from both.
While the customer service wins give us something to cheer about, it’s the customer service failures that provide us with ample learning opportunities. May we learn much from these episodes that we can apply to make our content centers even better.
Though many of our customer service opportunities occur over the telephone, other interactions take place in person, while a growing number happen online.
Each of these three areas are most relevant for the healthcare industry. And each of these connection points interconnect, with one channel often migrating to another.
In Sticky Customer Service, uncover helpful customer service tips through this compelling read, encouraging your operation to do better and celebrating what you do best. Learn how to meet your patients’ (that is, your customers’) expectations every chance you get.
Sticky Customer Serviceis the first book in the Sticky series. Upcoming titles include Sticky Leadership, Sticky Sales and Marketing, and Sticky Living.
Get Sticky Customer Serviceand turn customer service and patient retention into a core strength for your healthcare organization.
Many of the instructions you provide your staff exist to address a past problem. Though some of these scenarios recur too often, other situations may have been an isolated instance that’s unlikely to repeat.
Other expectations exist to accomplish management goals and advance operational paradigms. Though well intended and once applicable, their purpose may have lost relevancy over time.
With this background in mind, let’s reevaluate the procedures—that is, the rules—you’ve put into place for your staff. Consider these options:
Eliminate Obsolete Policies
Too many call center procedures once made sense but no longer do. You can make everyone’s job in your medical call center easier by eliminating unnecessary rules. The fewer procedures you expect your staff to follow, the better they’ll adhere to the ones that remain.
Simplify Existing Rules
Another category is procedures that have detailed and exacting expectations to follow. Although the general impetus behind the procedure still stands, you can look to lessen its severity. This could include reducing the number of steps required, removing time-consuming doublechecks, or empowering agents to act in specific situations without supervisor approval.
Implement Helpful Guidelines
Though our focus is on reduction, this doesn’t mean all procedures are bad. In fact, you may need to add some.
Look for areas of ambiguity that your staff routinely struggles with. Could you ease their burden by giving them specific guidelines to follow? Would a straightforward procedure save them the agony of trying to make a quick determination to address a perplexing scenario?
All call centers, especially those in the healthcare industry, require rules to run efficiently and effectively. But not all rules are good. You should eliminate some and simplify others. Also look to implement judicious rules that will help staff deal with challenging situations.
The goal is to make their job easier. When you do this, everyone benefits: you, your staff, your organization, and your callers.
In The Middle of Struggles, Turmoil, and Difficulties, Pause to Celebrate the Positive
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
The United States and a few other countries will celebrate Thanksgiving in November. Canada and some other nations do so in October.
Regardless of when you celebrate Thanksgiving—or even if it’s not a holiday where you live—take a moment to remember and give thanks for the positive elements in your life.
With all that’s happened in the past couple years it’s easy to focus on the negative, which can pull us down with discouragement and overwhelm us with despair. Yet there are positive things happening as well. We just need to acknowledge them and embrace them.
Here are some things to be thankful for.
Be Thankful for Health
I take my health for granted—until I get sick. Then I’m reminded to appreciate the rest of the time when I am healthy, which is most every day.
Even though few people have zero health concerns, with our health status existing on a continuum, let’s be thankful for the positive aspects and not wallow in the negative.
Be Thankful for Work
I doubt any job is 100 percent perfect, but having a job in the first place—when many don’t—is a huge reason to be thankful. Our jobs allow us to earn a living to support ourselves and our family.
Without them we would have to rely on the generosity of others or the support of government. The next time when your work hasn’t gone so well—and it will happen—wrap up the day by giving thanks that you have a job.
Be Thankful for Family
In the past two years, I‘ve spent more time with family then in the past and have appreciated them more fully. Though we can choose our friends, we can’t choose our family. They’re ours for life.
May we celebrate each familial relationship for the good parts of it and be able to overlook the rest.
Be Thankful for Friends
True friendships don’t occur easily for most people. We have acquaintances, coworkers, and neighbors, but that doesn’t necessarily make them friends. But celebrate the friendships we do have for how they enhance our life. We should never take them for granted.
And if you’re a bit short in the friend department, remember that to find a friend, you need to first be a friend.
Be Thankful for Opportunity
If you find it difficult to be thankful in one of the above areas—health, work, family, or friends—because you don’t see it as part of your life or are experiencing a shortfall, be encouraged. This is because the future provides an opportunity to change your present situation.
Starting today you can work to improve your health, make your job more meaningful or find a different one, embrace your family, and grow your friendships. But to make the most of this opportunity, you must first seize it. And that opportunity is another thing to be thankful for.
Although I’m not trained as an industrial engineer, I think I’d make a good one. I have a knack of looking at processes and streamlining them. It gives me great satisfaction to take something overly complex and reduce it to its essential elements.
It doesn’t matter what the task is, whether setting an appointment, doing a patient intake, or making a post-discharge phone call, there’s a process to assure it’s done correctly.
Sometimes we view these steps as common sense and don’t feel a need to document them—that is until someone fails to follow common sense. Other times—be it through past failures or an overly complex process—we document the path to produce success.
Too often, however, these processes are more involved than they need to be. We need to look for ways to streamline them. Here are four considerations.
1. Remove Obsolete Elements: Any process that’s been around for a while, likely contains unnecessary steps. Though once required, they no longer are.
One healthcare call center compiled data from every call for marketing. But marketing didn’t even know the report existed. The person who requested it had left the organization two years before.
2. Eliminate Redundant Tasks: When I started Medical Call Center News, I entered data into three spreadsheets for each issue. Some numbers went on multiple sheets.
I reviewed the purpose I sought to accomplish and what I was doing. One section was a carryover from another publication and no longer applied. Another area contained information that was personally interesting but had no business relevance.
By taking away what was not essential, it was easy to see how the remaining data could smartly fit on one simplified spreadsheet. Not only did I save time with each issue, but the result was easier to use information.
A corollary that applies in many large organizations is multiple departments that want the same data. Enter it in one place and allow everyone to access it there. Don’t do something twice when once will work.
3. Combine Steps: I once toured an apple farm and watched them make cider using an old-fashioned apple press. Though I admired the employee’s diligent work, the inefficiency appalled me. They could have combined five steps into two. And a simple adjustment to the press’s set up would have eliminated all five, which took about 20 percent of the time to make each batch.
4. Cull Historical Baggage: Processes that have been around for a while often include steps that are there because of one error that happened long ago. Yes, mistakes do occur, but it’s not wise to systematize preventing the possible reoccurrence of one long ago oversight.
Streamlining a process may seem like too much work, but once simplified your staff will save time, reduce errors, and be more efficient every time they use it. A little effort now will pay huge dividends for the long-term.
Now Is an Ideal Time to Enhance the Skill Level of Your Telephone Staff
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
We live in interesting times, to say the least. Too often the healthcare call center industry spends much time focusing on the crisis of today that it squashes all thought about planning for tomorrow. Once we slip into crisis mode out of necessity, it’s too easy to stay there out of habit—even if there is no longer any justification for it.
We may stand at that juncture now. This means it’s time to balance our work for today with taking initiative to prepare for the future. If we don’t, we won’t make forward progress; we’ll merely survive. Though survival is necessary, we need more if we hope to find success and enjoy fulfillment. I’m talking about ourselves, our staff, and our organization.
One aspect of future preparation is education. This can be formal or informal, structured or ad hoc, and mandated or self-determined. Though the application relates to everyone in the call center from new hire to director, let’s—by way of example—consider this for your telephone representatives. I’ll leave it to you to extend this throughout all staff in your operation.
When we think of our call center staff going back to school, consider refresher training for the first initiative. It never hurts to revisit the basics. Though it may feel as though our existing staff has moved beyond this elementary teaching, the basics can atrophy over time.
Agents will forget some of this instruction. Or maybe they never fully grasped other skills to begin with, even though they seem to be doing well in their jobs overall. The problem is the specifics of what teaching to refresh varies from one person to another. Therefore, it’s good to review everything.
Yes, I already hear your staff complaining. But this refresher initiative doesn’t—and shouldn’t—take as long as the first iteration. It should go much faster. Perhaps you can condense a day’s worth of training into an hour—or even less. The important thing is to make sure these basic skills don’t slip away over time.
A second option for going back to school is to look at application instruction. When new software or an app enters your call center, agents need to receive instruction to know how to use it. Too often the urgency of the moment cuts this training short; it’s sometimes even omitted. This forces your phone representatives to figure it out on the fly. Though this may seem pragmatic or feel necessary, on-the-job-training frustrates employees who want to provide excellent service, and it’s disrespectful to callers who expect to receive it.
Go back and provide complete training on new software applications, as well as for major updates. Everyone will appreciate receiving this much-needed instruction.
After reviewing the basics and mastering call center software apps, we can go back to school to enhance our skills. Your telephone staff receives initial onboarding training when they’re hired.
As they go about their daily work, they apply that training and build upon it to increase their skill level. But this isn’t enough to ensure excellence, let alone produce successful outcomes. Your seasoned staff is ready for more. They need more. And you can provide it for them by teaching advanced call center service techniques.
This may relate to customer service skills, problem resolution techniques, or de-escalating angry callers. It could also cover the seldom-used but much-appreciated advanced options available on your software platforms and databases. Staff won’t use these skills often, but when the situation arises possessing the knowledge of these advanced techniques can make the difference between an unsuccessful interaction and a positive outcome.
As students everywhere return to the classroom this fall, do the same thing for your call center staff: send them back to school. Providing refresher training, application instruction, and skill enhancement will help them do their jobs with greater efficiency and produce higher quality outcomes.
Don’t let another year go by without giving your staff this much-needed support. The result will be happier employees and better served customers—in addition to a more effective call center operation.
Verify Key Information and Don’t Assume You Know the Answer
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
My first full-time job was repairing copy machines. One day, toward the end of my short tenure there, the new service manager shared his vision for the future of his department.
The company had two product lines, each with its own technical staff. This was inefficient, as the paths of the respective service teams would often cross.
His grand idea was to cross train us on both product lines so we would do less driving and be more efficient. Customers would receive quicker service, and the company would save money.
It was a clever idea, but I pointed out something he overlooked. Already jammed with copier machine parts, my service vehicle had no room left to carry additional supplies for another product line. In fact, I revealed that I had removed my spare tire to make room for the parts I needed to carry.
His once pleased smile evaporated. My revelation left him dismayed, shooting down his brilliant idea. I’m not sure if I were the first technician that he shared his plan with, but I was the first one to point out why it wouldn’t succeed.
I respected him as a leader, in part because he understood my job. In fact, he once did what I and my three dozen compatriots were doing now. But things changed over time with more models to service and more spare parts to carry. His assumption that his knowledge from years ago still applied left him vulnerable to making a miscalculation.
This error can happen in any organization, including medical call centers and answering services. Many people in management and leadership rose through the ranks, having once answered patient phone calls themselves. But things change over time, and what may have once made sense, no longer applies.
That’s why it’s important for leaders to keep in touch with what their frontline staff does each day. This doesn’t mean caring a vague comprehension, but instead possessing an in-depth understanding.
Short of periodically taking calls—which is a great idea—the solution is to talk with your telephone representatives. This will help you better understand what they do on a day-to-day basis and aid you in making informed decisions about the work they do and the policies that support them.
Don’t assume you know the answer. Ask the people who know. They’ll either confirm or correct your perspective. Either way it’s a win.
Access Two Hundred Healthcare Call Center Articles Now in One Place
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
For the past twenty years I’ve covered various aspects of the call center industry, publishing relevant trade periodicals. This includes AnswerStat, as well as our sister publication, Medical Call Center News. During these two decades, I’ve written over five hundred pieces about various aspects of operating and optimizing call centers.
That’s a lot of material, averaging over two new articles a month for the entire twenty-year journey. This content spans four websites. Besides AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News, there are also Connections Magazineand TAS Trader.
Conservatively, I estimate this article library totals over half a million words. That’s a lot of writing, enough for several books. I just need to find the time to edit and publish them. So, stay tuned for updates when these books release.
This article library of content merges most of my industry information on one website. Plus, the handy search feature allows you to quickly access a specific topic. If you want to refresh your memory or reread something I’ve written in the past, this site is the ideal place to find it.
I begin this publishing adventure in September 2001, and I look forward to continuing it as we move into the future. And as this unfolds, watch for this article library to grow at the projected pace of two articles a month.
Something that’s become clear after the turmoil of 2020 is that the call center industry is an essential business communications vehicle that can weather any storm. More importantly, healthcare call centers have emerged as the future of the industry.
It’s going to be exciting to watch this unfold, and I’ll be here every step of the way.
Most medical call centers scrambled during the past year to adapt to ever-changing protocols. This includes adjusting to meet caller expectations, appropriately scheduling staff while ensuring their safety, and handling more calls than usual.
As a result, a day-to-day survival mentality has emerged in many operations. Just handle the next phone call, get through the day unscathed, and return tomorrow to do it again.
If we’re not intentional, we could find ourselves mired in this mode for a long time. The solution is to take initiative to inform our future so that it doesn’t force us into maintaining this uncomfortable status quo. Our future starts today.
Take time to consider what happens next.
Adapt a Dual-Strategy Mentality
While we all hope to one day return to normal, many people wonder if we ever will. Although our current situation could persist into the future, we could also morph into a new normal that falls midway between what was and what is.
Since we don’t know what will happen, our strategy should account for both possibilities. Though this requires extra work, demanding time that we may not have to give to it, it’s worth the effort to plan for two scenarios: 1) how we can best move back to how things used to be, and 2) how we can best move forward into a new way of doing business. Plan today to prepare for either possibility.
How well has your call center system performed in the past twelve months? If it’s handled everything you’ve thrown at it with ease and excellence, then you have a firm foundation from which to move forward.
If, however, a few cracks emerged in performance or capability, this is the time to plan for needed upgrades or a system replacement. Even if your call center platform performed well prior to the pandemic, you’ll expect more from it even if we’re able to return to the way things used to be.
Do what you need to do now to make sure you have the technological infrastructure in place to move into the future, whatever that may look like.
Though some call centers have had a distributed workforce or been virtual for years, many in the healthcare call center arena have been reluctant to send their agents home to work. Though a centrally located staff is easier to manage, it’s increasingly hard for most operations to staff.
Having the flexibility to tap into a home-based workforce—whether home-bound out of necessity or preference—may be the only solution for some call centers to fully staff their operation. If you’re not able to accommodate off-premise workers, take the needed steps to be able to move in that direction if or when needed.
Though it’s understandably easy to continue functioning in a crisis mode, it’s critical to take initiative today to prepare for a better tomorrow.
Knowing Who You Work for Helps You Do a Better Job
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
Do you know who signs your paycheck? Whose signature is it that authorizes payment for the work you do? This, of course, is a theoretical question because most workers today receive their compensation electronically. It shows up in their bank account each payday, without a knowledge of who authorized the transfer.
When I ask who signs your paycheck, however, I don’t mean in a literal sense but in a broader, holistic way. That is, who is responsible for the money you make? Who do you work for? Let’s consider the options:
First on the list is the company you work for, your employer. They hired you, trained you, and pay you for your work. Regardless of the size of the organization you work for, however, there are numerous facets to employment.
First is your boss, and the managers and supervisors she has in place to oversee your work. Larger organizations have a hierarchy. There is your bosses’ boss and maybe even their boss. There could be officers and a Board of Directors. A corporation has stockholders, who own the company. You work for them all. In effect, each one signs your paycheck.
What about your coworkers? In a well-functioning organization, everyone works together to meet a common goal: serving callers. And if you’re in a position of authority, you have people working under you. In a way, you work for them, too, by providing support, encouragement, and direction. If they succeed in their jobs, you succeed in yours.
If you’re employed in an outsource call center, where you handle calls for other companies, you work for them too. Serve them well to retain their business, and you will continue to have a job. Serve them poorly, and they’ll cancel service. If this happens too often, your future employment is at risk. In this way, you work for your clients as much as you work for your employer.
Regardless of the type of call center you’re in, you work for your callers too. Without callers, you would have nothing to do. They’re critical to your ongoing employment success as well.
Though most people who work in call centers have an inherent desire to do their best to help callers, not everyone is so service-oriented. Do your best to take care of them, which is what your company hired you to do. Then you will continue to have a job.
In addition to your employer, clients, and callers, you also work for yourself. You work to earn a living. It’s in your best interest to handle calls with excellence, thereby keeping your job.
In practice, you don’t work for one person, but for many. They are who signs your paycheck. Though there’s an obvious priority, strive to give your best work to each one of them, including yourself.
Don’t let this thought of working for everyone overwhelm you. Instead let it motivate you to give your best to your job every day, on every call.
Work to Enhance Customer Service to Better Meet Caller Expectations
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
What does your healthcare call center do to improve quality interactions with your callers and patients? While some call centers have robust programs in place, others struggle with implementation or following through, and a few keep putting it off.
Regardless of where you stand on the quality spectrum, too many call centers lack a methodical quality assurance (QA) program that they consistently use to track and improve the quality of the interactions that their agents have with callers.
Here are some thoughts to move forward:
Though you could begin with a grand comprehensive plan to have a dedicated QA leader or team evaluate every agent every day, this is too big of a vision for most organizations to start with. Instead think small. Aim to evaluate each employee once a month. This feels manageable.
Though evaluating one call a month may not provide statistically meaningful insights, it does communicate to every employee the importance you place on the quality of their work. It also brings a customer service focus to the forefront of their thinking.
Now that you’ve evaluated one call per person in a month, repeat the process. Do it a second month and then a third. Some employees will catch the vision right away, while others will have a wait-and-see attitude. But as you consistently assess one call per agent per month, your staff will see your commitment and take the goal of quality seriously.
Instead of evaluating calls to discover where agents fall short, seek to catch them doing something right. Focus on the positive whenever possible. Yes, you must address some errors immediately, but even in this case frame them between what they did right.
Let them self-identify areas to improve. For example, listen to a call with them and ask, “What was good about this call?” You may need to prod a bit, provide suggestions, or offer affirmation.
After they’ve identified several areas of success, then ask them, “What is one thing that could’ve gone better?” Then offer instruction, encouragement, or support as needed to help them turn this one weak area into a strength.
Grow as Needed
Once you have a system down and have consistently evaluated one call per agent per month, look to expand your program. Seek to assess two calls per month. This will also be an ideal time to train other people in your QA process so that they, too, can help appraise calls.
Also, be sure to allocate time for your QA manager or team so they can complete their call evaluation work. Don’t expect them to squeeze this task in among many others. If you do, something will suffer, and I suspect it will be your QA program.