Five Steps To Help Fix The Sorry State of Hospital Call Centers (Part 1)

Andrea Simon, Simon AssociatesFor years I’ve worked with hospitals on healthcare innovation, particularly on how to improve patient satisfaction. And no matter the size of the institution, I’ve consistently advised leadership that the first stop in the patient’s journey — the call center — can set the tone for the rest of the experience.

If this initial interaction is positive, it can engender trust and comfort among patients that is further supported during appointments, treatment and follow-up efforts. Conversely, if the caller is ignored, rushed off the phone, sent to an incorrect contact, treated with disrespect or otherwise overly frustrated, that can mean the end of the patient experience. That person will head to another hospital.

Call Centers Are Seen As Cost Centers

Should we be improving hospital call centers? Yes! While some call centers get it right, many leave much to be desired.

For years, hospital leaders have considered the call center a cost center that they begrudgingly need to handle complaints and low-level administrative tasks. As such, some hospitals have not invested much in them in terms of time, attention or money — and it shows.robot call center

To see just how bad the situation is out there in the field, we at Simon Associates recently conducted qualitative research calling 20 hospitals in search of care for “my father diagnosed with prostate cancer.” With the exception of one or two places, we were bitterly disappointed. Staffers hung up on us, told us to go to the website, sent us to a contact who directed us somewhere else…the list goes on and on.

As consumers, we were discouraged from ever going back to 90% of the hospitals we contacted. Given that percentage, it’s alarming to see how many organizations still don’t see the true potential of the call center — and the need to repair it for their own survival.

Bad Call Centers Often Expose Outdated Cultures

As a corporate anthropologist and culture change consultant, I see call centers as gateways to better branding and increased revenue. However, call centers that demonstrate ongoing, systemic problems show symptoms of a culture that stubbornly has not adapted to the realities of the world around it — and the requirements of today’s patients.

While those archaic call centers represent a huge challenge for many healthcare systems, it’s important to remember that challenges are often opportunities in disguise. If they’re confronted head-on with new solutions, these challenges could ignite culture change that leads to much more positive, and more profitable, outcomes. So if you’re in a leadership position at a hospital or you’re an influencer, here are five steps you can take to help make your call center a place that not only impresses incoming callers, but also attracts new patients and encourages loyal customers.

5 Steps For Creating Profitable Hospital Call Centers

Step 1: Diagnose Your Call Center’s Condition

Before you can make larger changes, you first need to diagnose not just the problems you see, but also the issues that remain hidden. That’s because only 4% of disappointed customers will address an issue directly with an organization, while 96% will say nothing or complain to others. Worse yet, 91% will never come back, according to Customer Service Expert Ruby Newell-Legner.

So how do you get the information you really need? There’s one sure way: hiring Mystery Shoppers, external experts who are trained to spot customer service problems. As Kathy Baird, head of the Baird Group, explained in one of our SAMC webinars, “Mystery shoppers pose as real patients and rank their patient experience based on criteria that highlights strengths and weaknesses.”

These observations hopefully will form the basis for specific changes which hospital leaders need to make. They could lead to an entirely new protocol, maybe even a new culture. In almost all cases, enhancing the skills and demeanor of call center staffers emerges as one of the initial issues to tackle.

Step 2: Make Your Hospital Call Center More…Hospitable!

While hospitals are first and foremost dedicated to medicine and healing, it’s hard to achieve that when potential patients flee before even visiting. Call centers need to become more focused on the needs of the person on the other end of the phone line, instead of treating him or her like yet another detached voice complaining about ailments or trying to make an appointment.

Compassion (touted in many hospitals’ mission statements and slogans) is key and goes a long way toward conveying a healing brand. Similar to upscale hotels that go above and beyond to make their visitors feel wonderful about each and every element of their stay, hospitals really need to be much more hospitable.

Of the 20 call centers we tested as self-appointed Mystery Shoppers, we found one that did everything right — largely because the person answering the phone was compassionate, attentive and knew where to send us for further information. That happened with the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), which encourages people to call anytime, 24/7, participate in a live chat, or even video chat with an expert. Anyone would feel welcome immediately! Wow, what a concept.

What Comes Next? Stay Tuned For Our Next Blog

Thank you for reading Part 1 of “Five Steps To Help Fix The Sorry State of Hospital Call Centers.” Please click here for Part II of the story, which offers three additional steps to fix hospital call centers. We’ll also share the case study of a prominent healthcare group that was able to streamline its operations and drive a significant increase in patient visits.