Now more than ever, patients in the medical field have options. With Google at their fingertips, these tech-savvy individuals are participants as much as customers. This is why many medical institutions have deployed a medical call center to ensure a positive experience, even when patients are dealing with serious and stressful medical conditions.
However, setting up a medical call center can be a complicated process. Because customers approach the medical establishment with a wide range of issues, and because privacy concerns must remain a top priority, medical call centers have a unique range of challenges that other sectors often do not.
Why set up a Medical Call Center?
For a lot of hospitals and clinics, one or several receptionists have acted in multifaceted roles for a long time. For many of these types of businesses, these agents perform their roles admirably, and call centers are not needed.
Example of cases when a call center is needed:
- Customer service quality starts to noticeably decline
- Your staff are becoming stressed, overworked, and unable to perform
- Dropped or abandoned calls begin to outweigh successful calls
- Information is being misplaced or calls are being handled poorly or inefficiently
Often, budget-conscious businesses delay the inevitable and allow their customer service quality to decline precipitously. Because your business’ reputation is often one of its strongest assets, waiting until this point can be a bad idea, and can do damage to your reputation that is hard to reverse.
The best way to know when to change is to identify metrics for call success, and track them over a set time period.
- How long is the average caller on hold?
- What percent of calls are abandoned before a call is answered?
- Do most of your patients resolve their issues, or end the call in frustration?
When these numbers begin to slide, it is time to examine solutions.
What Call Centers can do
Because patient privacy is a huge issue in the medical field, call centers that service these types of calls must remain focused on their core responsibilities. Luckily, call centers offer a wide range of unique benefits over in-house answering services.
Around the Clock
In many other sectors, the vast majority of calls are not urgent, and can be returned after a waiting period. Although waiting periods that are too lengthy will drive away customers, they will not risk life and safety. In the medical field, this is not the case. A call center mitigates these risks, by providing around-the-clock, 24/7 service to customers.
Even if the call is not an emergency (and you should always encourage placing emergency calls to 911 or your equivalent service), answering customer questions on medications or symptoms at any time will provide them with a huge peace-of-mind, and drastically increase their overall satisfaction with your service.
Better, More Flexible Care
After establishing an optimal call flow, call centers allow for a range of agents, each of who deal with specific issues. Moving customers smoothly from one agent to the next prevents circle calling, phone tag, and annoying wait times that drive down satisfaction levels.
Properly trained agents in a call center can give patients access to a wide range of help in one place. These can include customers making appointments or asking questions about medication or treatments. They can also include outgoing calls to do patient follow-ups, appointment reminders, and quality control calls.
Setting up the call center
Call centers are a business unto themselves, and you must approach them as such. Experience as a medical service provider gives a vast insight into the needs of your customer, but does not necessarily provide a guide to establishing and running a call center. There are a number of essential questions that you must consider.
Local or Off-Site
In the initial stages, local, onsite call centers will offer immense appeal. They allow for staff to play dual roles answering phones and helping patients in person. They also let medical staff participate or maintain some oversight.
However, there is a range of issues with this option. Phone agents need quiet, non-distracting environments, both for themselves and for the person to whom they are speaking. They also need a place where privacy is assured. A booth in your reception area or at your front desk is not appropriate, and ultimately will prove self-defeating.
An off-site call center ensures that you have the quiet, private, professional space necessary. When a patient calls in and can barely hear your phone agent because background conversations overwhelm them, their impression will be one of an unprofessional and unreliable service. As they are likely already dealing with a stressful medical issue, you must avoid this at all costs.
With modern technology, off-site no longer even requires one call center location. Many businesses hire remote agents, who use VOIP phone systems like Aircall, and work from the privacy and comfort of their own homes. This reduces your costs significantly, and allows your staffing to easily scale as your business does.
Whether your call center staff numbers three, thirty, or three hundred, their basic needs remain the same. You must provide comfortable, ergonomic chairs and desks. Computers needn’t be the ultimate in power and processing, but must be quick enough to allow agents to react. Asking the patient to wait while your computer loads is embarrassing and will lead to abandoned calls.
Phones will require headsets that are comfortable, and transmit sufficient volume of sound. Crystal clear microphones give the patient confidence and aid elderly or hard of hearing patients in getting the information they need the first time. Do not make them ask you to repeat.
Hiring and Training
This will be possibly the single most important part of the process. Hiring the right staff, and training them, will prove the lynchpin of your success. The medical field involves patients who are often experiencing stressful, worrying issues. These patients are likely to interact with your business in a heartfelt, emotional way. They are not buying shoes. You must treat them with the utmost patience, respect, and care.
These are easy words to say, but much more difficult to train for and apply on a regular basis. Your staff must be assigned specific roles, and must be familiar with a wide array of potential issues. They must possess a calm demeanour, and the ability to deal with upset, irritated customers without losing their own calm or in any way exacerbating issues. Hiring with a mind to sensitivity, and then regularly training to reinforce this behavior, will help with this.
Optimizing Call Flow
What is the outcome when a customer contacts your medical call center?
- No welcome plays, and an agent either answers immediately, or they are placed in a queue until someone does.
- A welcome message plays identifying your call center, and the customer is put in an immediate queue
- A welcome message plays identifying your call center, and a series of options are presented, allowing the customer to easily identify the best and quickest way you can address their issue
Although there are situations where the first two options are preferable, in most cases the third will help your call center act most efficiency and effectively. However, overly elaborate call trees will confuse and distract customers, and they will either simply hang up, or press 0 until an agent sorts their call manually.
Keep your options simple and concise. Brainstorm the fundamental and obvious reasons for most calls. The agents who answer these calls will be trained to handle issues related to whichever option the customer has selected. This might seem obvious, and it is, but repeated testing will lead to a quicker and happier interaction with the patient, and reduce strain on your staff.
After an agent answers the phone, a properly prepared script will keep your answers consistent and reliable, allowing agents to answer with confidence. It is important that patients can rely on your agents to give the same answers. Any confusion or inaccurate information will likely cause you issues down the road. However, you must allow for some flexibility as well. Remember, your callers want to speak to human beings!
Running the Call Center
As with any business, call centers rely on constant testing and adaptation. You must establish a list of Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs. These will let you know where you are finding success, and where your business must change and adapt. Luckily, in the call center business your customers are often the very first people to inform you of your shortcomings (and vocally so!)
Many of these KPIs are already familiar to you, as they indicated to you that a call center was required in the first place. They are:
- Speed of answering
How long does a customer wait before they are speaking? with a human being? Are you blocking calls, or putting them through to agents right away?
- Call abandonment rate
How frequently does a caller hang up before their call goes through?
- First call resolution rates
Are you solving issues on the first call, or do customers have to call back to address the same issues later?
- Call length
How long does each call last, on average?
- Call back rate
Do abandoned calls make a second attempt? If so, after how long, and what happens to them at that point?
Luckily, a wide array of technology makes tracking these KPIs easier than ever before. VOIP phone services integrated with end-to-end customer service management apps can help you track calls as they progress through your system. Do customers press the right numbers on your automated system? How often are you transferring calls?
By keeping a record of every interaction with each of your customers, your call center agents will be able to respond accurately and quickly to issues. Imagine being able to reference at a glance everything from medication history to previous questions. By saving customers time and eliminating redundant conversation, your call center will enjoy a more satisfied customer, and also a quicker turnaround time, allowing you to interact with more customers per hour. This efficiency is a vital part of your performance metrics. This way, you are able to see at a glance how well your call center is operating.
Medical Call Center Management
With your KPIs both in mind and in writing, you can begin to optimize the workings of every aspect of your medical call center. One vital function will be tracking and responding to peak call times. Over a four-week period, keep a careful log of each call that your center handles, the length of the call, the issues brought up, and the outcomes you develop (whether positive or negative).
From this data, you can begin to plan optimal staffing requirements, and create a flexible and efficient workforce. This involves not only setting staffing limits and overall schedules, but also minute details, like break times and frequency.
This will also help you evaluate your call flow effectiveness. Are users finding the answers they need, and are calls dragging on unnecessarily? Are you remembering to further convert callers with information about new developments or options? Set a schedule for your agents, and then track how closely they adhere to it. Most call centers aim for 85-90% adherence rates.
Medical call centers provide a tremendous benefit for both medical facilities and for the patients who call them. Quick, 24/7-phone support with integrated data sharing and empathetic, patient agents will improve turnaround time, and result in happy, satisfied callers.
However, setting up a call center is a complicated process, and involves a significant amount of planning. Modern technology has allowed most of the physical issues, like location, to no longer be a main concern, but staffing, training, and organization remain key elements to success.
Set budgets, define your KPIs, empower your agents, and more flexible, focused care will follow.