When you think about great customer service, a few companies stand out: Amazon, Marriott, Southwest Airlines, Trader Joe’s. Rarely is a hospital or other healthcare organization held up as a model of service for others to follow. Why is that? Should you care? If so, what should you do about it?

A few months ago, an analysis of almost 35,000 online reviews of physicians nationwide showed customer service is patients' primary frustration. In fact, according to this study, 96% of patient complaints are related to customer service, while the other 4% cite clinical care or misdiagnoses.1 Surely healthcare providers, especially those in high-level hospital management, don’t realize patients’ perceptions of their service is so poor. After all, for decades, the healthcare industry was very insular, having little reason to compare their customer service to anyone except each other, thus setting the bar fairly low.

Today, patients are consumers and, more importantly, customers. When they call or come through your doors, they’re savvier and have higher expectations than ever before. And we all know the power of social media. As they do in every other consumer category, patients won’t hesitate to tell the world if their experiences with a hospital and its staff aren’t up to par – not by healthcare standards, but by the standards set by other industries such as hospitality, financial services and retail who have customer service down to a science. It’s time for hospitals and providers to benchmark and improve service based on those players, because that’s what your patients are doing.

Why patient satisfaction matters so much

Value-based performance is pushing hospitals and providers to achieve many more financial objectives, with the “patient experience” being an extremely important measure of success. It constitutes seven of the 33 accountable care organization quality measures defined by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and drives everything from patient loyalty to pre- and post-service payment collection. Official measures aside, it stands to reason that patients who have great experiences are more likely to return and recommend your hospital or service to others. If the opposite happens, they’ll go elsewhere (and tell all their friends on Facebook and Twitter). Also, loyal customers in any industry are more immune to competitors and less price sensitive, thus increasing your revenue and profitability.

What’s the customer service problem?

Compassion should be a commodity in healthcare. From registration and scheduling, all the way to billing and collections, the patient experience should be pleasant. Gone are the days when a warm body following a script will suffice. Today’s competitive environment demands experienced people who understand healthcare and have “soft skills” that set them apart. This is especially important in patient access areas such as your front desk and telephone encounters, but it isn’t the norm. Problems like these remain commonplace:

  • Bad first (and last) impressions.
    In customer service, the first and last moments of an interaction are what people remember as a permanent snapshot of the whole encounter. If your front desk staff or customer service employee acts annoyed at the patient “interrupting” them, it can be difficult to recover. Likewise, the lack of follow-up calls to see how patients are doing can leave them feeling overlooked.
  • Slow response times.
    When patients can get medical advice online in a matter of seconds, it’s frustrating for a scheduling office to take days to return a phone call.
  • Not knowing how to apologize.
    In most businesses, the customer is always right. The same should be true in healthcare. There is no room for defensiveness or apathy when the patient points out a service lapse. Instead, the staff should sincerely empathize with the patient and try to solve problems on their behalf.
  • Lack of purpose.
    Great customer service is possible only when employees know their underlying purpose or mission (e.g., creating successful medical outcomes and caring experiences for patients) versus their job function (e.g., answering the phone). When people understand their purpose, they respond to patients differently.
How to create a customer service culture

After years of status quo, it may seem overwhelming for hospitals to create the service culture of an Amazon or a Marriott. One approach is to break the patient experience into manageable chunks and focus on critical pieces first. The most obvious common thread running through your patient-facing processes, and the one that will make or break your customer service reputation, is people.

Whether interacting with patients in person or on the phone, your patient access staff must bring their A-game at all times. That means hiring efficient, knowledgeable, reliable and compassionate people who not only know healthcare, but have a natural instinct for patient satisfaction. At McKesson, we’re seeing hospitals and providers who struggle to find the right people, or are too busy to handle high call volume, turn to remote call centers. Already, about two-thirds of U.S. hospitals use call centers to support patients, some of which are outsourced. This is a great solution, provided it meets your criteria for quality, efficiency and those “soft skills” mentioned earlier.

Choosing a call center partner

There are many important considerations when choosing a healthcare call center. Here are six things a call center should provide:

  1. Regular, ongoing training for representatives
    Pick a medical call center that insists on excellence and continual improvement. They listen to calls and score representatives on workflow, protocols and qualitative measures.
  2. A connection to your organization.
    Successful medical call centers inspire representatives’ pride in your hospital and turn “them” into “us.” Find a provider who learns your demeanor and preferences and takes that information back to the team.
  3. Familiar language.
    Everyone is more comfortable talking to people who speak their language. Look for a medical call center with translation services and staff fluent in languages your callers are likely to speak.
  4. A culture of encouragement, respect and appreciation.
    Find a call center where the representatives feel valued. They’ll turn over less and work harder to make your patients feel that way too.
  5. Outgoing calls from real people.
    Humans always trump robocalls, as many people delete or hang up on automated recordings rather than listen to them. Make sure there’s an alternative to automation.
  6. Healthcare expertise.
    Seek a partner who can provide call center services across a wide range of hospital and provider functions. Make sure representatives can quickly determine what kind of help each patient needs and either provide the assistance or know who else can.

The right call center representatives and other patient access staff can go a long way to move your hospital toward Amazon, Marriott and Southwest Airlines on the customer service continuum. Outsourcing your call center to McKesson Business Performance Services can help you improve patient satisfaction scores while optimizing revenue and increasing efficiency.

McKesson Business Performance Services provides healthcare organizations as much – or as little – help as they need to optimize all areas of the revenue cycle, including patient access, coding, charge capture, compliance, medical billing and accounts receivable management. Learn more about our patient access services and how we can help you grow revenue and maintain positive cash flow.

1“Patients' No. 1 complaint? Front-desk staff,” by Kelly Gooch, April 26, 2016, Becker’s Hospital Review, http://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/patients-no-1-complaint-front-desk-staff.html?platform=hootsuite

Keith Slater

About the author

As our Vice President of Patient Access Services, Keith Slater oversees the services strategy for our Patient Access business initiatives for hospitals, health systems and physician practices.  With 27 years experience exclusively in the healthcare vendor and services space, Keith has held executive roles at companies such as MED3OOO (pre-McKesson acquisition), Elsevier Clinical Solutions, Henry Schein and Misys Healthcare Systems with key roles in helping providers optimize their operations through technology and service excellence.