Don't make patients play telephone: 4 ways hospitals can improve the caller experience

Each year, a health system can encounter millions of inbound calls, which contribute heavily to the patient experience.

These conversations also set the tone for the rest of the patient's interaction with a hospital or health system and influence the organization's brand.

But keeping call handling prompt, efficient and patient-centric can be daunting. The number of voice channels in a hospital or health system presents a challenge in itself. For some organizations, the contact page features a dozen phone numbers, each with its own level of service, greeting, voice or automated system. There's often very little consistency of service across all lines.

"There are so many touch points in the voice network — to find a physician, to schedule that initial appointment, to get test results, to speak with billing, to reach a patient," says Mark Bedard, marketing director at Parlance, a company specializing in healthcare call handling. "The experiences callers encounter across the voice network as a whole need to be at the forefront of a healthcare administrator's thoughts when looking at their patient satisfaction strategy."

Playing telephone, literally

When patients schedule an appointment, their call may come into the switchboard operator. The switchboard operator hands the patient back to the scheduling center, where the caller has to repeat himself or listen to an interactive voice response and hope to find the right option among limited choices, Mr. Bedard says. During periods of peak call volume, the caller may experience wait times or poor service levels on both fronts, further contributing to their frustration.

Conversely, a caller may come into the scheduling center when they have a simple switchboard request or general information inquiry. That means the scheduling center agent needs to understand their need and get them to the appropriate destination or (in most cases) back to the switchboard, Mr. Bedard says. Meanwhile, there are calls stacking up in the call queue that require agent expertise.

"Callers google the hospital or health system and call the first number that pops up —which may be the physician referral line — because callers tend to treat every published number like the 'main' number," Mr. Bedard says. "The caller may merely have a general information request, but assumes that the first number they come across is the main switchboard. There's a lot of cross-channel traffic going to the wrong resources, which contributes to inefficiency and caller frustration."

Parlance customer data consistently shows nearly 30 percent of a healthcare contact center's call load consists of general information requests. "Revenue-generating, highly valuable agents are unnecessarily occupied by these routine calls," he says. "Meanwhile, the caller is suffering. They're encountering different service levels and caller experiences, multiple hand-offs, the need to repeat oneself, frustrating IVR menus — it's not a good recipe for patient satisfaction," he says.

How can hospitals and health systems improve the call experience? Here are four places to start.

1. Put yourself in the shoes of the caller. Mr. Bedard recommends organizations first gain a deep understanding of caller behavior. What are callers trying to do? Which lines are they dialing into? Where are the most hand-offs and transfers occurring? Is there a consistent 'voice of the brand' across service lines? How many automated menus stand between them and the resource they need?

"Understanding the experience you're providing on the main service lines is a good first step. Putting yourself in the shoes of the patient can help you find where the caller experience disconnects and roadblocks exist, and you can then begin planning improvements to streamline your services," Mr. Bedard says.

2. Remove the roadblocks and deliver consistent service. Once hospitals and health systems understand caller behavior and roadblocks to the caller experience, it's surprisingly easy to resolve many of them all at once.

Mr. Bedard says advances in speech recognition and natural language technology have yielded new solutions that quickly and easily get callers to the right resource — regardless of what service line they've dialed into.

"The latest call handling solutions can act as the initial 'concierge' for the entire voice network," he says. "These solutions can be broadly applied to deliver a great experience to all callers and get them where they need to go quickly, yet can be customized to support each service line's specific function."

3. Eliminate lengthy menu options. Charlie Schrier, director of content strategy at SmartAction, a provider of artificial intelligence-based voice self-service, also weighed in on how hospitals and health systems can improve patient experience in the call center. He recommends hospitals and health systems eliminate lengthy menu options for callers. He says hospitals receive such a wide variety of callers that the IVR menus become frustrating: "Press 1 if you are a patient, press 2 if you are a physician…" and so on.

"Each time you present an IVR menu at the start, it can reduce self-service completion by 10 percent and misdirect as many as 20 percent of calls," he says. "Rather than begin calls with a menu, use an Intelligent Front Door, which essentially asks, "How can I help you?" Based on the reply, a good system will handle the call appropriately."

4. Don't make callers repeat themselves. Mr. Schrier also noted the callers' frustration when they have to repeat themselves. He says this can be an immediate frustration for callers even if the caller knows the agent is "just doing their job."

"Companies that do this to their customers suffer from low Customer Effort Scores and possibly verbal abuse both on the call and later in social media. Given how much data is potentially collected during any given call, companies should religiously pass along information, whether from computer to agent or agent to agent," he says.

 

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