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Hospitals Are Ailing From Poor Switchboard Service
With customer service playing an increasingly important role as a competitive differentiator in the healthcare industry, facilities must place greater emphasis on customer interactions.
Posted Aug 15, 2007
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Nearly 60 percent of calls to hospital switchboards for physician referrals are mishandled, according to recently unveiled research by The Beryl Institute. The poorly handled calls are potentially costing hospitals millions in lost revenue, the institute says. The institute's white paper--"Moments of Truth: Hospital Switchboards a Bottom-Line Issue"--is based on an assessment of nearly 2,000 calls to hospital switchboards in October 2006. Researchers made five call attempts to each of 341 healthcare facilities, asking, "I am new to the area. Can you help me find a doctor?" Just under 40 percent of these callers were successfully connected--that is, transferred directly to a physician service line. The financial implications of not directly transferring callers to physician referral lines are hard to ignore: The average contact center caller generates $4,000 in downstream charges in the year subsequent to the initial interaction, according to "The Call Center as a Marketing Channel," a report (cited in Beryl's white paper) from Thomson-owned Solucient, an information-products company specializing in healthcare. Consequently, the institute contends that, for a hospital that generates an average of 1,000 monthly switchboard calls seeking a physician referral, the nearly 40 percent of calls that were connected may produce nearly $20 million in annual revenue--leaving $30 million in annual revenue either lost or put at risk. Of the mishandled calls, two-thirds are classified by The Beryl Institute as "At Risk": Rather than being transferred directly to a physician referral line, callers within this group were given a new number to call. (This group, according to the institute's formula, represents as much as $20 million in untapped annual revenue.) Additional study findings reveal that the remaining third of mishandled callers were either incorrectly told that the hospital had no referral program (12.3 percent), transferred to the wrong department (7.2 percent), or simply received no answer (1.6 percent). These calls, which fall under the "Lost" bucket, represent more than $10 million in lost revenue, according to the institute.
"Each caller must be treated as a prospective and valued customer and appropriately served or transferred on the initial call," the white paper states. "The risk of not connecting is simply too great." This most recent white paper is the third in a series of studies by The Beryl Institute concentrating on the benefits of strengthening the customer-acquisition process. Its findings dovetail with research included in the two previous white papers released this year by the institute, the research and education arm of The Beryl Companies, a provider of outsourced customer interaction services to the healthcare industry. "Ready or Not, Customer Service is Coming to Healthcare" (unveiled in March) explores obstacles that hospitals will have to tackle as consumer demands rise. "It's Not Just a Call, It's a Customer," a paper released in May based on a study of more than 300,000 calls, determined that 75 percent of callers unable to get through on the first try will not place a second call. The institute's latest paper prescribes several strategies for bolstering switchboard customer service:
  • Ensure that customer service is a priority at the executive level and paint a clear picture of what excellent switchboard service is.
  • Instill within all switchboard operators the importance of potential and current customers, and regularly measure and reward operators delivering stellar service.
  • Boost first-call resolution rates by deploying functionality that allows operators to easily transfer calls.
  • Clearly communicate the goals of all marketing programs to frontline staff.
  • Ensure that operators fielding calls from the hospital's direct number are as properly trained as reps manning the organization's branded marketing number.
  • Make training an ongoing initiative.
  • Provide benchmarks.
  • Staff appropriately.
  • Hire outside support to make assessments and recommendations.
"Good service is the key to customer acquisition," the white paper states. "This discrepancy between poor and outstanding front-line service will become even more significant as consumers pay more of their own healthcare costs. Those healthcare organizations that can close this front-line 'service gap' and delight customers on the initial call will succeed in acquiring new customers and reap substantial financial benefits."

Related articles: Healthcare Hunters Search from Scratch A new study says that, for consumers seeking health information online, relevance matters more than trust, and that search-engine optimization is a must for healthcare companies. A Healthy Diagnosis for E-Health The use of the Internet in healthcare services will benefit patients and healthcare providers alike--as soon as security concerns are addressed. Market Focus: Healthcare: The Great Divide The business of medicine and the care of patients are not the same thing; for both segments, customers is difficult to define.
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