A Great Connection: Call Centers Cultivate Customers

By Paul Spiegelman

Most consumer-focused healthcare organizations recognize that the call center is a vital link between potential patients and providers. Never has that linkage been more important than in the current healthcare environment. Why? Pricing transparency, as well as rising co-pays and deductibles in many insurance plans, is making consumers more cost-conscious than ever before. They now have a plethora of resources that empower them to make independent selections on healthcare. The quality and satisfaction ratings posted on such websites as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Hospital Compare are transforming the process of selecting a hospital or physician. In this environment, establishing meaningful relationships with customers is no longer a nicety; it is key to survival. Call centers play an integral role in building lasting relationships with consumers.

A Critical Touchpoint: The old adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” rings especially true for healthcare organizations. Because of the highly personal nature of healthcare, consumers are more sensitive and vulnerable to indifferent customer service. From their first call, customers are judging you. Answering calls in a timely manner, treating callers with compassion, and demonstrating knowledgeable professionalism goes a long way toward making that first impression a positive one. In well-managed call centers, call advisors are trained to deliver this exceptional level of service. Few other touchpoints along the healthcare organization are as well-equipped to turn consumer inquiries into loyal customers.

In an age where people have grown accustomed to accessing information 24/7 via the Internet, being available to answer calls at all hours is imperative. The realities of the overall marketplace have dramatically affected consumer expectations. Still, many folks do not expect around-the-clock availability of information from a healthcare provider, and it can be an important point of differentiation from the competition.

Of course, meeting the customer’s needs and expectations is requisite in building that first connection. Getting to know customers becomes critical, and this is where call centers excel. Customer relationship management (CRM) has been the backbone of many other industries, including retail and hospitality, for years. Healthcare has been slow to adopt CRM, but the latest software programs offer sophisticated tracking capabilities that capture “snapshots” of customers using many different variables. These can include age, gender, healthcare interests, family composition, call conversation details, and service utilization. By maintaining a record of each interaction by customer, call center advisors can help organizations deliver a more individualized experience at every touchpoint.

Cultivating the Connection: Because they are data collection portals, call centers are well-positioned to help cultivate lasting relationships with customers. Using the data gleaned from prior calls, center representatives can initiate a meaningful exchange that references previous interactions. For instance, new mothers looking for a pediatrician referral might very much appreciate learning about a “new moms” program. These could easily be the same women who requested a referral to an obstetrician months earlier.

Data collection can also be a powerful tool for cross-selling services to previous callers. It’s easy to imagine that patients registering for cardiac screenings may very well be interested in full body scans or wellness programs. Newly diagnosed diabetics could be logical candidates for nutritional counseling sessions. By anticipating the needs of previous callers, the organization can foster a connection that goes far beyond the typical healthcare interaction.

The majority of call centers field incoming calls only. However, the most customer-centric organizations are taking relationship management to a new level by utilizing outbound strategies. Some hospitals are using their call centers for pre-registration and appointment-reminder calls. Because of their customer service training, call center advisors are well-equipped to handle such calls and can establish a stellar first impression – more so than harried departmental clerks with multiple responsibilities.

Another application that helps cultivate relationships in non-traditional ways is using call center personnel to make post-visit satisfaction calls through which advisors use scripts to determine how patients feel about the experience they had with the healthcare provider. The conversation gives hospital representatives the opportunity to identify and remedy any concerns about the customer’s experience on a proactive basis. Such calls can help improve patient satisfaction scores, which are becoming ever more important in gauging quality.

From that initial call through repeated interactions along the care continuum, your customers are giving you every opportunity to earn their business. Call centers successfully launch these long-term relationships and set the framework to win the hearts and minds of patients—and enduring customer loyalty.

[For more information, see The Well-Run Call Center.]

Paul Spiegelman is CEO for The Beryl Companies.

[From the October/November 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]