The Art of Follow-up

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Valuable lessons can be learned from many sources. For example, the demeanor of salespeople can provide insights for the healthcare industry and the call centers that serve them.

A couple years ago, I was researching software specifically developed for magazine publishers. It promised to streamline and integrate operations, as well as provide the ability to offer new services. With all its grand features and benefits, I suspected that it would be correspondingly pricey.

Even so, I decided to get prices; I might be pleasantly surprised. Using a resource guide, I quickly limited the roster of thirty providers down to four contenders. To be efficient, I sent an email to each, asking the entry-level price. I did so for two reasons. First, if the price was astronomical, I could quickly end communication without wasting any more time. The other reason was that I expected that an inquiry about pricing would begin a dialogue about my needs and their software’s solutions.

Of the four companies, one responded almost immediately, two the next day, and one never did. All three responses were a terse statement of price. Only one of the three asked a follow-up question. Another promised to send me a demo – but never did. For the third, I needed clarification on his poorly worded message, which garnered me another brusque email. No one attempted further dialogue.

Although my initial communication was via email, I conspicuously provided both my phone number and mailing address. Sadly, there was nary a phone call or mailing. It doesn’t even appear that I was added to their marketing database.

Although one of the vendor’s price was too high, the other two were not unrealistic. Had either of their software packages lived up to their grand pronouncements, I would have most likely made a purchase within the month. But, I will never know because no one bothered to follow-up.  I am perplexed; at a price comparable to a decent used car, you would think that there would be sufficient motivation to pursue all interested parties.

The opposite of no follow-up is excessive follow-up. Take Joe, for instance, a good-ol’-boy salesman. He stumbled onto my name and called to set up an appointment. He pressed for an in-person meeting; I eventually acquiesced. During our appointment, it quickly became apparent that his company was not a good match for me. My conclusion was further confirmed with his price quote, which was twenty-five percent higher than the “competitive” rate he promised. I told him so and concluded by saying that I would call him if I wanted to pursue things further.

Sadly, Joe was not listening; my name and number were now in his contact management system. He would periodically call but not for any real purpose other than to just to talk. He never provided more information, never shared company news, and never attempted to move the selling process forward. His method was sadly predictable, along the lines of, “Hi, this is Joe; I’m just checkin’ in to see how you’re doin’.”

Initially, I was somewhat cordial, but I concluded each call with, “I’ll call you if I need something.”  Over time I became less affable, eventually ending one call with “Joe, please don’t call me anymore; I will call you if I need something.”  I felt badly for being so blunt. However, my dismay was short-lived because two weeks later, he called again. I cut him off, and as politely as I could muster, said, “Joe, I don’t wish to be rude, but I asked you not to call me anymore. Please don’t call again.”

This may have been the first time he actually listened. “D-d-did I do something to offend you?” he asked. I explained my position. Incredibly, he called again a few weeks later, spouting the same tired line. That was the last I heard from him. Either he finally got the message – or got canned.

You may think me a malcontent, first complaining about a lack of follow-through and then being critical over too much, but there are lessons to be learned.  First, if you’re in sales, remember to follow-up, but do so wisely. If you are a buyer, you need to control the seller better than I controlled Joe. Most importantly, there are lessons for the healthcare industry, and by extension, the medical contact center:

Too Much Follow-up: With the time and money pressures that confront the healthcare industry, it would seem there’s not much risk of too much follow-up, but I have encountered it. Usually this occurs when multiple people contact me about the same thing, providing duplicate or sometimes conflicting information. Either way, more time and effort is spent – by both parties – trying to clarify communications and resolve situations. I’ve encountered this with setting appointments, resolving billing issues, learning about test results, and clarifying instructions.

Too Little Follow-up: Alternately, is the case of no follow-up. While my dentist office excels at getting me in for regular checkups, my doctor’s office is notoriously ineffective. For my physician, no follow-up with me means no income for him. With careful and intelligent follow-up, additional valuable medical services could be sold.

Delayed Follow-up: An oft-lamented case of slow follow-up is in the area of relaying test results. While test results are a routine matter for the medical provider, it is anything but routine for a concerned and worrying patient. Countless times, I have heard of friends needlessly stressing over not knowing the results of a test for days or even weeks. Seldom is this because the results are not available, but it is because someone forgets to call or puts it off.

Inconclusive Follow-up: A related complaint is the “we’ll call you if there is something to be concerned about” approach. A simple communication stating that the results are normal would relieve much patient concern and stress. It’s a common courtesy, but it’s not a common practice.

Call Center Opportunities: Each of these common follow-up scenarios, and many others like them, spell opportunity for the healthcare call center, be it for your own organization or for your client companies.

Just like the salesperson, success comes with the right amount of follow-up.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the December 2010/January 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]