Healthcare is a customer service industry. Companies (and customers) live or die based on the quality of care provided and the daily interactions between staff and patients. The first key to providing great customer service in the healthcare industry is to stop treating patients as customers whose sole purpose is to generate revenue. Great customer service starts with taking a patient-centric perspective – viewing them as people your company is meant to help.
Every employee in a healthcare company is potentially a customer service representative – someone whose daily activities should be focused on improving the quality of care provided to patients. Some employees will interact with patients directly while others work in supporting roles (behind the scenes), but everyone should approach his or her job with a customer-service mindset.
Why Customer Service is Important to Healthcare Companies
Customer service experiences set the expectation for the quality of care
You may have the most skilled physicians and experienced nurses in the industry, but if you can’t provide a consistently high-quality experience for your patients, they won’t recognize you for outstanding healthcare. The goal of healthcare companies should be to develop long-term relationships with patients rather than approaching each interaction as if it was a transaction.
Happy patients are likely to return to the same doctors, clinics and facilities for all their healthcare needs
Happy patients are also highly likely to recommend healthcare companies to friends, family members and co-workers. Doctor-patient relationships may not be easily and/or often recognized, but they are some of the best examples of customer loyalty in any industry and the strongest doctor-patient relationships start with customer service. The reputation your company develops for excellent or poor customer service will be critical in determining whether potential patents seek your services in the future.
Bad data can lead to life-threatening mistakes
The healthcare industry depends heavily on accurate patient data to make diagnostic and treatment recommendations. Errors, incomplete records and staff’s inability to access needed data can severely impact the quality of care – even potentially leading to life-threatening mistakes and malpractice lawsuits. Customer service systems and processes, and the thoroughness of staff, are the first defense against costly mistakes.
Poor customer service is an indicator of bigger problems
Customer service performance is often a symptom and indicator of underlying issues within an organization. A company that provides excellent customer service is likely to have robust and refined processes and systems. Companies that provide poor customer service are likely to struggle with process inefficiencies, staff training and data quality. These don’t just impact patient care, they also impact the cost of operations.
Why Customer Service is Important to Patients
Customers don’t seek healthcare services when they are feeling well. They typically engage with healthcare companies and individual providers to seek help for themselves (as the patient), a friend or a family member. Health issues can be stressful. Patients are often worried about their health conditions as well as financial issues and this can strain interactions with customer service staff.
When engaging with healthcare companies, patients expect more than treatment – they want care. More importantly, patients want healthcare companies and their employees to show they care about the individual’s needs, situation and well-being, which is demonstrated during every interaction.
Improving the End-to-end Customer Experience
Customer service in healthcare is more than the time the patient spends interacting with the provider. The end-to-end customer experience includes many touchpoints and interactions between the customer and the healthcare company. Each of these interactions provides an opportunity for the company to influence the customer’s perception about the quality and value of care he or she is receiving. The following section is an overview of the key touchpoints in the healthcare customer experience and what you can do to improve them.
Selecting Healthcare Products and Services
Searching and selecting the products and services the patient needs is the first touchpoint in the customer experience. Many customers will compare reviews, advertisements, referrals from other providers and recommendations from family and friends to determine their healthcare options and find the right products and services for them.
A healthcare company’s marketing materials, reputation and relationships with other providers are the key factors that influence potential customers’ first-impressions. Marketing materials, advertising, magazine articles and promotional materials can be effective tools in your overall customer service strategy – helping you target the potential customers.
Appointment scheduling is typically the first active engagement between the patient and a healthcare company. During this interaction, the company often collects basic information about the patient and his or her healthcare needs. With this information, the provider is able to perform an initial assessment of urgency and schedule an appointment for the patient.
Healthcare companies can improve the scheduling experience by:
– Minimizing wait times to talk to a scheduling agent
– Reducing the time necessary to capture patient data
– Having accurate and up-to-date scheduling data to help identify the most convenient time to schedule the appointment
– Providing appointment confirmation and instructions via email, with reminders a few days prior to the appointment.
Since data and technology heavily drive the scheduling experience, this is an ideal interaction to offer self-service capabilities that show patients the efficiency of the company’s processes and demonstrate its respect for patients’ time.
Patient check-in for a scheduled appointment or a walk-in visit is typically the first in-person interaction with the healthcare company. Patients develop impressions based on the atmosphere of the facility, friendliness of staff and efficiency of check-in processes. When a patient checks-in for an appointment, there are typically two activities that occur: completing a health questionnaire and waiting to see a provider. The cumbersome nature of the data collection process and the wait time for a provider heavily influence the patient’s impressions.
It isn’t always possible to control wait times (though scheduling density can help), but it is possible to manage patients’ expectations about wait times. Customer service processes and systems can help staff track expected wait times and provide patients with accurate estimates for when they are likely to be seen. Healthcare companies can also enhance background questionnaires to include more information about symptoms, complaints and health history (information that can be captured while the patient is waiting) to reduce the amount of time needed for the appointment.
At the appointed time, the patient begins to receive services from a healthcare provider. This is definitely the patient’s most important customer service experience. Healthcare practitioners (physicians, nurses, technicians, dentists, etc.) don’t often recognize their importance in customer service. Optimizing the service delivery experience and making it a positive one is critical in the healthcare industry.
The key to providing a great customer service experience is to provide the healthcare staff with the right set of tools. Practitioners should have complete access to patient records and health history as well as appropriate diagnostic tools and systems to help them direct healthcare activities on behalf of their patients. Practitioners should be able to record treatment notes, patient questions, recommendations and diagnosis notes while interacting with the patient. Practitioners will then focus less on the mechanics of delivering healthcare and more on the needs and experience of the patient.
Continuation of Care
Many healthcare experiences require more than one activity and often more than one appointment. Practitioners may need to refer patients for tests, request them to return for follow-up appointments or refer them to other practitioners. The healthcare customer service experience isn’t necessarily constrained to a single appointment or interaction. Customer impressions are based on their holistic, end-to-end experience.
Healthcare companies can improve this part of the customer service experience by optimizing how referrals and transfers to other providers are performed. Customer service systems can provide practitioners with the tools to locate referral resources, make appointments on behalf of the customer and submit orders for tests. This helps the patient feel the healthcare company is concerned about his or her overall health and is not just treating him or her like a business transaction.
Occasionally, the patient and/or healthcare providers encounter problems with scheduling, check-in or the service delivery experience, which create a less than favorable patient impression. Healthcare companies still have an opportunity to recover from a possible negative patient impression with a simple, post-appointment follow-up interaction. While first impressions are important, a patient’s last interaction with a healthcare company will have the biggest influence on his or her overall impression of the customer service experience.
Here are a few key tips healthcare companies can use to maximize the impact of post-appointment follow-up interactions.
1. Make it personal – Phone calls and personal attention from staff demonstrate to the patient that they and the facility care about his or her health and experience. Automated emails, text messages and robocalls should not be used for post-appointment follow-ups and are likely to have a negative effect.
2. Ask the patient how he or she is feeling – This may seem intuitive, but asking this simple question indicates to the patient that the company cares about him or her and not just as another business opportunity.
3. Follow-up any continuation of care recommendations – If the patient was referred to another provider, required testing or was recommended for a recheck appointment, then be sure to ask the patient about the status of these activities. It may be necessary to offer new referrals or assist in scheduling appointments.
4. Inquire if the patient has any questions – Healthcare appointments can be stressful and, often, patients forget to ask questions. They may also think of follow-up questions after they have returned home. Post-appointment follow-up interactions are a good time to make sure patients’ questions are answered fully.
5. Provide contact instructions for future engagements – Healthcare companies should be fostering long-term relationships with patients. Post-appointment follow-up calls should always end with an invitation to the patient to contact the company again for further questions or future healthcare needs.
Billing and Insurance Claims
Health conditions can be painful, but for many patients, the most traumatic part of their healthcare experience is the billing-and-insurance-claims process. This process is notorious for time-delays, miscommunications and frequent re-work of forms, records, etc. For healthcare companies seeking a great customer service experience, it is important to make sure billing-and-insurance processes don’t spoil an otherwise favorable impression.
Healthcare companies can improve the customer service experience of their billing-and-insurance-claims process by treating these finance-related activities as part of the overall patient care experience. Billing staff should have access to customer records and their interactions should be recorded and conveniently stored for future reference, and processes should be optimized for both speed and accuracy.
Follow-up appointments on a health issue or future appointments for a different issue should not be treated as a new customer service experience. The end-to-end patient experience of interacting with healthcare companies is continuous throughout the entire relationship. Patients refer to providers as “my doctor” even when an active health condition isn’t being managed. This is important, because it sets the expectation that healthcare companies will treat every future visit as a continuation of past patient care.
To take advantage of the long-term opportunities of patient-provider relationships, healthcare companies should focus on maintaining customer service records for the entire set of interactions. Staff should review and update any Information and insights collected during one engagement (e.g. health history, insurance information, diagnostic tests, allergies, etc.) as preparation for scheduling appointments and future visits. This ensures that the healthcare company can provide holistic care without asking the patient for the same information multiple times.
What Patients Expect from the Healthcare Customer Service Experience
The relationship between a patient and healthcare company is often an individual’s longest engagement with any business during his or her lifetime. Developing and nurturing this relationship requires a thorough understanding of patients’ expectations and perceived value of their care during the healthcare customer service experience.
– Quality medical care
– Comfortable and safe atmosphere
– Caring and empathetic staff
– Efficient processes
– Accurate and complete information
– Professionalism and confidence
Healthcare companies can support staff’s ability to deliver an excellent customer service experience by providing them the information and tools they need.
Access – to complete patient information
Workflows – to facilitate efficient processes
Checklists – to ensure accuracy and completeness
Integration across systems – enabling data to be shared effectively
Resiliency – if patient care depends on IT systems, then they must be dependable
Healthcare Data Privacy
Modern healthcare is a data-driven industry. Customer service staff and healthcare providers are the stewards of patient records and provide assurance that the data is used responsibly. Having a robust set of policies and processes to manage customer data is the foundation for providing outstanding customer service. Customer service processes should address:
– Regulatory compliance (e.g. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)
– Authorization from the patient for disclosure
– Sharing data with other providers
– Sharing health data with family members
– Interacting with insurance companies
While these may not seem like customer service issues, failure to maintain and use patient data responsibly can cause reputational harm that may not be repairable. Many patients don’t want their health conditions shared with others and they have a right to privacy and confidentiality. Well-planned data management policies and processes can improve customer confidence in a healthcare company.
How to Provide Great Customer Service in Healthcare
To deliver or exceed patients’ expectations, every employee in the healthcare industry must acknowledge and embrace their role and responsibility to provide a great customer service experience. Great customer service starts with taking a patient-centric perspective – viewing them as people your company wants to help and to act in a manner that leads to a lifelong relationship. From the scheduling staff to physicians and nurses to the billing staff – everyone in the healthcare company has a critical role. Companies can provide a great experience by focusing on four key components:
1. Caring and empathetic staff – Ensure every employee understands and fully embraces their important role in providing patient care.
2. Tools to support end-to-end customer experience – Technology is essential for modern healthcare and modern customer service.
3. Responsible used of data – Patients have a right to privacy and confidentiality. Protecting sensitive patient data is both a legal requirement and good business sense.
4. Efficient processes that show you respect patient’s time – Refine processes and your use of tools to minimize the time patients are waiting, worrying and becoming frustrated.
With healthcare being a customer service industry, the difference between mediocre customer service experiences and those that are truly outstanding is how companies combine these components in their end-to-end patient experience.