Three to Thrive: Answer Three Questions or Close Your Contact Center

By Richard D. Stier

The call center can be a health system’s first and most valuable point of contact for building trust and retaining patients – or not. Three foundational questions define the difference.

1) Is your contact center aligned with your organization’s power core? Decisions are made through the lens of a healthcare organization’s core purpose, or power core. And the document that most accurately reveals an organization’s core values is neither the mission statement nor the strategic plan; it’s the budget.

In your organization, what is the predominant filter – your power core – that determines what is budgeted? Be candid. “Frequently it is the strongest skill set in the company or the most comfortable to senior executives,” according to author Jeanne Bliss in Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action.

Your healthcare organization’s power core could be clinical quality, with a focus on quality outcome indicators, emerging technologies, world-class clinicians, and sub-specialty depth. Clinical expertise is the product. Or perhaps your power core is information technology, where IT largely influences the priorities of the organization – far beyond hardware and software. Possibly your power core is passion for the customer, and your organization makes decisions based on the goal of distinguishing the customer experience. Maybe your organization’s power core is operations, driven by processes that deliver excellent execution. Perhaps your power core is finance, with every choice filtered by the unspoken question: “Will this decision strengthen our bottom line?”

Make sure to align the contact center with your organization’s power core. Rather than it being layered on top of the “real work,” make the contact center a central component of the work itself.

For example, if the power core is clinical quality, redeploy your contact center as a care connection hub, which intentionally facilitates the continuity of care. If the power core is information technology, then have your contact center become a trusted source of truth for provider data that replaces or integrates information from perhaps dozens of redundant systems.

The key is to understand your organization’s power core and purposefully align the contact center to support it. This must be more than messaging and positioning. Refocus both contact center activities and contact center metrics to tangibly support the power core.

2) Is your contact center an investment or an expense? Remember that expenses are cut, while investments are funded. Call centers that do not validate outcomes that support the core purpose are vulnerable expenses. In contrast, contact centers whose metrics document their contribution to the power core are valued investments.

For example, contact center metrics for a power core of clinical quality might include:

  • Quality scores of nurse navigators
  • Percent of ED visits redirected by nurse triage to less costly, clinically appropriate care
  • Kept appointment rate for post-discharge physician visits
  • Percent of PCPs whose patients schedule follow up appointments within seven days of discharge
  • Decline in rate of avoidable re-admissions
  • Documented non-accommodation to identify roadblocks to appointments for needed services

Metrics for a customer power core might include:

  • Scores and trending for awareness, familiarity, preference, and advocacy
  • Caller satisfaction scores
  • Satisfaction scores for participating physicians and their practice managers
  • Increased HCAHPS response rates when completion is encouraged by contact center
  • Documented complaints and compliments
  • Caller loyalty score identifying how willing callers are to refer only to your organization

Metrics for a finance power core might include:

  • Number of new appointments for in-network medical home and/or ACO primary care physicians
  • Number of patients referred to participating practices
  • Non-compensated community benefit provided by the contact center
  • Contribution margin from new patients referred through the contact center
  • ROI: financial return per each dollar invested

3) Does your contact center deliver intentional experiences?

The healthcare contact center is frequently where a patient’s first experience with your organization occurs. That experience is your organization’s early opportunity to deliver on its brand promise. “The first three seconds must be intentionally effective,” said Colleen Sweeney at the 2012 Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development Annual Conference. “That initial interaction is a strong driver of patient preference.”

Many times that opportunity is squandered. Healthcare observer Paul Roemer comments: “They hire more call center agents, and they throw technology at the problem, technology like scheduling applications – applications that do nothing for the other 80 percent of calls. Applications that, without an understanding of the business problems, without a strategy and a plan, will get in the way of creating a great caller experience across the enterprise.”

If your goal is to improve transactions by acquiring more agents, more technology, more training – more anything – you’ve already lost. You might as well close the call center. Call center transactions are a commodity. Transformative experiences differentiate. Make the equivalent shift from coffee as commodity on the grocery shelf to coffee as an experience at Starbucks.

To design your organization’s intentional first experience, imagine a visual image of the ideal caller experience from the perspective of the caller. Jot down the key thoughts you would communicate to create that experience with a first-time caller. Make several pilot calls to internal team members to role-play the call. Ask for their feedback. Based on their responses, make a list of key themes to communicate during that call to create the ideal caller experience. Use those themes to role-play trust-building caller interactions with new staff members before they take their first call and again after particularly challenging calls.

Thriving call centers become conduits of trust. Trust is nurtured by extreme service behaviors:

  • Visualize the outcome of the desired caller experience before every call.
  • Smile into a mirror as you answer the call.
  • Actively listen to understand what each individual caller wants most.
  • Acknowledge and validate callers’ feelings; communicate with empathy.
  • Summarize call resolution and any instructions; check for caller understanding.
  • Ask: “Is there anything else I can do now to support your positive healthcare experience?”
  • Deliver on every promise to every caller every time.

A healthcare contact center can be an unsurpassed asset for building preference and repeat business – or it can be an anemic expense. Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at these three questions – answering them can refocus your contact center as a thriving secret weapon for your organization.

Richard D Stier

Richard D. Stier, MBA, serves as vice president, marketing for Echo, A HealthStream Company, a leading provider of contact center and software and consulting solutions serving healthcare organizations across North America. Contact Rick at or 800-733-8737 x7265.

[From the Feb/Mar 2015 issue of AnswerStat magazine]