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    Billy J. Sample
    Billy J. Sample

    Healthcare contact centers
    The massive changes to the healthcare landscape brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have reframed providers’ thinking about the financial outcomes of care delivery. Hospital systems are reporting financial losses in amounts never seen before in history and the costs of doing business are at an all-time high. Healthcare competition is popping up everywhere to include retail locations, changing the dynamic in which healthcare is sought out, and ensuring that “customer service” becomes a greater determination in overall care satisfaction.

    Providers losing patients to competition because of poor “customer service” or poor “care coordination” take a direct hit on revenue streams and the bottom line. The resurgence or renewal of value-based care in a post-COVID-19 environment is pushing providers to examine reimbursement and how they meet their financial objectives; improving the patient experience is an extremely important component of meeting those objectives.

    There is another financial incentive for healthcare systems to improve the “customer service” provided to patients. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) requires hospitals subject to the Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) annual payment update provisions to collect and submit data from the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS), the payment survey that measures patients’ perceptions of their hospital experience and responsiveness of hospital staff, to receive their full IPPS annual payment update. If they fail to submit this data, their annual payment update may be reduced by two percentage points.

    Health system executives are responsible for the patient experience, yet they struggle to focus on that and “customer service” because of competing priorities — staffing issues, quality, and safety initiatives; mergers and acquisitions, and IT/supply management issues, just to name a few — requiring the focus of their time and attention. This can lead to prime “customer service” areas such as call center interactions to suffer from a lack of oversight.

    Healthcare organizations with in-house call centers don’t always monitor calls or track call metrics from a “customer service” or patient experience perspective. Many health system executives don’t realize they have problems, such as issues with their sound quality, until revenue shortfalls and patient satisfaction scores show otherwise. By proactively researching and deploying technology that improves the communication experience, it can make patients feel more engaged during interactions with providers and customer service representatives, thus improving overall patient satisfaction scores.

    Perhaps the biggest reason healthcare call centers fall short is because they are not run like a true call center. It’s typical for a hospital or health system to put existing front desk or scheduling staff in a centralized location to try to gain efficiencies and improve productivity. Many times, the importance of excellence in customer service is not emphasized nor do they invest in the proper staffing required to run a true call center. The results of this oversight in call center staffing needs are unhappy employees, a revolving door of staff turnover, and extremely frustrated and unsatisfied patients.

    The demand for contact center services is at an all-time high amid the post-COVID environment, with the rise of virtual service delivery models, and the need to enhance connectivity between patients and providers. Patient service representatives (PSRs), the healthcare equivalent of customer service representatives, are now the healthcare systems’ front line for patient interaction. Productive contact centers and skilled PSRs are crucial, as is delivering great customer service — the kind that people remember and return to your health system for — in today’s changing healthcare world.

    Here are three keys to success:

    Provide the right tools to build real connections with customers

    Pushing more contact center interactions to digital to relieve staffing and capacity strains makes complete sense, except for the fact that patients aren’t crazy about communicating via social media or email when they’re navigating the complexity of a health system. The last thing your contact center needs is the triple whammy of:

    1. Poor customer experiences
    2. More escalations, and
    3. Lower NPS scores.

    If you’re serious about moving patient services to digital channels and achieving high levels of patient satisfaction, start by proactively reaching out to your patient population. Guide them through the process of digital communication to help them feel comfortable with using new ways of engaging with their care team and ask for feedback.

    Another key to boosting patient satisfaction is high fidelity audio and video communications. Customers want a real, live human being at the other end of the conversation, and every virtual visit or question about medical benefits or billing can drive additional demand into your contact center. With this rapid spike in calls, it is more important than ever that your PSRs are heard clearly. Hard-to-hear calls can result in mistakes, misunderstandings, and extended conversations that translate into poor experiences. Audio problems and background noise can lead to patient dissatisfaction, and they are not uncommon when rogue or unapproved audio devices are used, or the absence of any headset at all. Patients need to have trust in a provider organization and the PSR; clear audio enables that bond to be strengthened and gives your PSRs the best chance of making a real connection with your customers. Getting the audio right and setting up clear calls will generate more efficient interactions with fewer mistakes and result in better overall customer satisfaction.

    Maximize your move to the cloud with the right equipment in a hybrid environment

    The pandemic changed healthcare delivery forever. Today, PSRs can work from home, and in response healthcare organizations have moved or plan on moving the contact center’s interactions to the cloud so providers and support service personnel have the flexibility to work remotely. With nothing but a computer, a professional headset, and Wi-Fi, remote staff get the job done day in and day out. How do you know which headsets to choose? It’s important that they work seamlessly with the cloud environment. Most headsets sold today connect through USB ports or Bluetooth and are visible to cloud management systems — so you can audit them. Make sure the ones you choose can be updated remotely to keep pace with frequent cloud platform and equipment firmware updates.

    You’ll also want headsets that work seamlessly across multiple contact-center platforms. Since your PSRs are likely remote or hybrid workers, you’ll want to make sure the headsets they’re using are compatible with their favorite platforms — including the ones they use at home. Your headsets should also allow remote troubleshooting to support your hybrid working environment.

    While most headset brands are reliable, some develop faults. Keep your staff up and running with fully functioning equipment by making sure replacement headsets can be delivered directly and timely to a home address, if needed, and don’t forget about choosing a headset maintenance partner. You may need one in a pinch; and when you do, their services will be invaluable. Extended warranty, cleaning services, and replacement parts are examples of what they can do to help lower your total cost of ownership.

    Empower your PSRs to do their best work — and prevent employee attrition

    The world’s largest WFH (work from home) experiment has proven that hybrid work models are highly effective and productive. Make sure your non-essential staff and hybrid work policies are aligned with your business objectives and employee preferences. For non-essential employees who remain at home, identify those who will need additional technical assistance, and make sure that assistance is available by proactively engaging with them.

    Unfortunately, there’s also a potential downside to WFH: Now that most employers are open to it, what’s preventing employees from taking jobs beyond their commute range? If you aren’t looking after your employees and creating a rewarding environment for them, they may be more likely to leave for jobs elsewhere.

    Employees in contact centers are generally younger and more sociable. If they don’t feel a sense of belonging and team camaraderie, you could lose them. You may also want to provide a way for teams to work together, to find resolutions quickly and efficiently.

    Patient interactions are becoming increasingly complex, and knowledge-sharing is critical to retaining valuable PSRs as well as for training new team members. If you are looking for easy way to boost retention among remote workers, add video. Personal USB cameras add a high-fidelity video component to team meetings, and they help staff maintain social connections at a physical distance. Distributing purpose-based video components, provides staff members with meeting equity and allows them to feel that they have an equal seat at the table. Instant messaging or chat solutions can also help teams stay connected, build teamwork and share knowledge.

    Patients are usually dealing with many challenges and may be emotional when they call in, venting their frustration and/or raising their voices. Protect your PSRs by providing headsets with advanced acoustic shock protection to minimize those heightened sound levels. For employees who’ve spent their career using corded headsets, providing them a wireless headset can make a big difference in their morale and productivity.

    Adopting the correct tools for the job is a necessity for employers, employees, and patients. With the right technology in place, value-based care will continue to thrive, and connection using high-fidelity tools will become the standard for contact centers to deliver the highest quality of customer service.

    Billy J. Sample

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    Billy J. Sample

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