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Health Care Industry Customer Service Essentials: Tragic Phrases and Magic Phrases - Deborah Lewis
 Health Care Industry Customer Service Essentials: Tragic Phrases and Magic Phrases - Deborah Lewis
Deborah Lewis, M.A., President of the Bredeson Group LLC, is nationally known on health care and behavioral medicine, and has 20 years hands-on and consulting experience. Her experience encompasses all the content areas of the Bredeson Group portfolio. All projects are conducted under the leadership of this seasoned consultant.

The Bredeson Group draws on the services of a team of health, behavioral medicine, employee assistance, and human resources professionals. All team member have at least 15 years experience and possess relevant graduate degrees. Additionally, the Bredeson Group has relationships with architects, writers, curriculum design specialists, and graphic designers.

Ms. Lewis helps employers/unions and providers solve workforce effectiveness, health care cost and quality, and managed care product problems. In addition to her skills as a consultant, she is a talented writer, and motivating presenter and group facilitator.

Prior to founding the Bredeson Group, Ms. Lewis served as a senior managed care and employee assistance consultant for Kwasha Lipton, and originated behavioral health care and employee assistance services practices at Ernst & Young and The Alexander & Alexander Consulting Group. Prior to that, Ms. Lewis was the Corporate Manager of Health Promotion at Union Carbide Corporation where she designed and directed a comprehensive, on-site health promotion program and health learning center focusing on rehabilitation and demand management. She is the recipient of the Union Carbide Special Recognition Award and the Alexander & Alexander Technical Excellence Award.

Her particular areas of expertise are managed behavioral health care, employee assistance, work/life, flexibility, health promotion/demand management, patient advocate, utilization management, and managed care quality assessment programs. Deborah has provided services to a range of clients, including corporations of all sizes, hospitals, managed care companies, government entities, not-for-profit foundations, professional associations and social service agencies. Some of the organizations for whom she has completed assignments include Avon Products, UFCW Local 1262, American Express Travel Related Services, American Stores, Shephard Pratt Hospital, Saint Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center of New York, Sears, Fairfax County, the Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children, and the Dependent Care Connection. She is also currently affiliated with the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare and is an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport.

Ms. Lewis is a magna cum laude graduate of Tufts University where she majored in foreign languages, has her M.A. in health/physical education from New York University and has completed graduate studies in social work and counseling. She is fluent in German, proficient in French and has beginning knowledge of Spanish. Ms. Lewis is active in a number of professional associations, presents frequently at national conferences, and has published extensively on the subject of managed care and organizational effectiveness. Additionally, is active volunteer in her community.

Email: cliffview@aol.com


Question 1 - Good Morning Deborah!

Thank you for starting the new year of HealthBond's hosted forums. You present an interesting topic. Will you explain to us what you mean by "Tragic and Magic Phrases"? by HBInterview on January 8, 2001

Answer 1 - Magic phrases and tragic phrases are those brief statements that, in the blink of an eye, make a customer (read patient, participating provider, managed care contract manager) feel great, or, conversely, angry and frustrated. They communicate, in an instant, that you either care and are competent, or that you don’t know what you are doing but could care less about it. by Deborah Lewis on January 8, 2001
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Question 2 - Will you share some examples of Tragic and Magic Phrases? by HBInterview on January 8, 2001

Answer 2 - Some of the tragic phrases that make customers “crazy” are: “You are wrong”; “May I ask who is calling …..he’s busy.”; “I’m not the one to help.”

Some magic phrases, statements that make our customers feel good about us and the organization we represent, are: “How may I assist you?”; “I’ll be glad to….”; “I’ll get back to you by (x time)…” by Deborah Lewis on January 8, 2001
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Question 3 - The Healthcare industry, in general, is not known for its customer service. Why are these "Magic and Tragic Phrases" important and what kind of difference do they make to an organization, whether its their culture or bottom line? by HBInterview on January 8, 2001

Answer 3 - The first impression created by receptionists and call center personnel, these often overlooked individuals, is ESSENTIAL. Their energy, warmth and professionalism set the stage for an effective customer interaction, and for a lasting impression of your organization. Moreover, customers expect the first person calling to solve their problem. If their initial contact is the start of a voicemail nightmare they will go away extremely frustrated. Consumers have a choice -- and they will choose to go elsewhere if you don't satisfy their needs. But before they go elsewhere, they will make a point of complaining about your organization and giving your organization poor quality ratings. This will hurt your reputation and your business prospects. by Deborah Lewis on January 8, 2001
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Question 4 - Hi Deborah,

Do you think it is appropriate for the meet and greet person in a busy medical office to be responsible for answering the telephone? by ebag on January 8, 2001

Answer 4 - Gabe, Ideally, it would be nice to have separate people meeting and greeting in person and answering the telephone. The reality of most medical offices is that the meet and greet person is often also responsible for answering the telephone. Within these confines, it is particularly important to equip this person with the tools to handle calls swiftly (frequently asked questions sheet, information on where to transfer calls, ways to politely get off the phone etc.). At the same time, training in how to greet people in person -- including acknowledging their presence and letting them know when you will be able to help them -- is crucial. by Deborah Lewis on January 9, 2001
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Question 5 - How can we equip the receptionist, who does not have technical background, to answer routine patient inquiries? by HBInterview on January 8, 2001

Answer 5 - Have your receptionist and staff write down all the frequently asked questions they receive and produce a document, in hard copy format, or, ideally, on-line, to address frequently asked questions. If you have a web-site, post these questions and answers on your site. This will enable you to equip receptionists to provide excellent customer and prevent wasted clinician time spent responding to routine queries. by Deborah Lewis on January 9, 2001
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Question 6 - What type of training requirements does it take for call center / receptionists to learn how to use those "Magic Phrases" and work with customers?
by HBInterview on January 8, 2001

Answer 6 - In order for call center personnel/receptionists to learn how to use Magic Phrases and work effectively with customers it takes:
1. A top down commitment to customer service at all levels of the organization
2. Policies and written guidelines, including specific performance expectations, examples of what to say, and "scripts" -- without specific written expectations, there is no content to teach and no yardstick against which to measure performance
3. Initial and follow-up training that includes both cognitive learning and practice. Since customer service involves emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-management, and social skills) practice and real live situation simulation are crucial.
4. Ongoing monitoring of customer service, either through formal monitoring programs, Mystery Shopper Assessments, or information monitoring. by Deborah Lewis on January 9, 2001
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Question 7 - You mention the "voicemail nightmare", are organizations moving away from voicemail back to a "live person"? Are they situations in which one might be preferred over the other? by HBInterview on January 8, 2001

Answer 7 - Voicemail will not -- and should not -- go away. However, every organization needs to blend both. Patients and other customers should always have access to a "live" person, especially for emergencies. In many busy practices, a callback will be necessary for routine and non-urgent matters. All practices need strict standards (e.g., all calls will be returned within x hours and an aggressive approach and mindset). Managed care is dictating increased access to live assistance, especially in behavioral health care and especially in the need to provide 24/7 access to care. This is also a training and policy issue: personnel should never use voicemail to avoid patients and other customers. On-line access to either real time live assistance or to rapid follow-up is another area where service is increasing. Access to a live person is preferable and necessary where: 1. there is an emergency; 2. there is an unhappy customer wishing to make a complaint or get a problem solved. 3. when the customer needs to talk to a person and cannot within a voicemail system find the assistance they require. by Deborah Lewis on January 9, 2001
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Question 8 - What are some personal characteristics or steps that will help find the appropriate person when hiring for a receptionists position and / or choosing a call center to represent your office? by HBInterview on January 9, 2001

Answer 8 - In order to select an appropriate person when hiring for a receptionist position and/or choosing a call center to represent your office you can:

1. List the characteristics that you are seeking: the goal should be to hire personnel that your customers will like.
2. Read between the lines during the interview: observe and listen to the candidate to see if they model the traits you are seeking. Do they speak clearly? Do they shake your hand and look you in the eye? Do they appear to like people? Other traits to look for: positive energy; warmth; humour; listening skills; dress; respect. Pay attention during the interview -- what you see now is what your customers will get later.
3. Ask everyone who had contact with the interviewee their impressions -- including the receptionist with whom they first talked when they came in the door.
4. Put customer service high up on the evaluation critieria for this position. Make it a part of the job description and be clear with candidates that their performance evaluation will be based on the quality of service they provide.
5. Ask candidates during the interviews why they want this position. Ask them about their approach to customer service, whether customer service is important and why, and how they feel about having extensive contact with the public.
6. Give candidates a case study to solve during the interview: how would you deal with this difficult customer?
7. Consider conducting a mock telephone call.
8. When hiring a call center, conduct Mystery Shopper telephone calls before hiring them. by Deborah Lewis on January 10, 2001
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Question 9 - Organizations may have a problem recruiting and retaining call center personnel and receptionists. Just how important is the first impression created by these individuals? And, what are some retention techniques you have seen to help the good ones stay?
by HBInterview on January 9, 2001

Answer 9 - The first impression created by these often overlooked individuals is ESSENTIAL. Their energy, warmth and professionalism set the stage for an effective customer interaction, and for a lasting impression of your organization. Moreover, customers expect the first person they reach to solve their problem. If their initial contact is the start of a voicemail nightmare they will go away extremely frustrated.

In order to get the good ones to stay, you will need a strategy customized to your culture and business goals. Having said that, here are a few ideas:
1. Rewards and recognition: There is an old customer service saw "you can't give what you are not getting". Recognizing customize service personnel's contributions, and providing complementary low cost/no cost rewards is a must. Regular thank-you's is at the top of the list -- don't forget the power of a personal, hand-written thank-you note. Start a customer Hall of Fame to showcase special "beyond the call of duty stories". Have your CEO spend an hour with every new employee. Announce promotions publicly. Post a chart showing customer service performance (e.g., percentage of happy customers, number of complaints, response time, etc.). Give extra time off for accomplishments. Send flowers. Encourage suggestions on how to improve service and then thank those who have made the suggestions -- consider a gift certificate thank you for ideas that are implemented. Set up a customer service point system where employees can work toward a prize. Sponsor an ice cream social when a customer service team reaches their goals.
2. Fun work environment: have a party "just for the heck of it." Create a fun work environment. This positive atmosphere will carry over to customer interactions.
3. Provide training and growth opportunities. Provide specific customer service practice opportunities based on your organization's (hopefully) written customer service expectations.
4. Make customer service a top-down initiative. Your CEO should also attend customer service training. Customer service falls apart management and clinical personnel think they are above attending training on this issue. (That kind of arrogance is a sure way to lose good call center and receptionist personnel).
5. Provide work/life and employee assistance support services. Remember your employees have a life outside work and help them to deal with this life so that they can be there for your customers. Good luck! by Deborah Lewis on January 10, 2001
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Question 10 - You have mentioned the "Mystery Shopper" a couple times. Would you take a couple minutes to tell us what a mystery shopper does? Is this something an organization can do itself or are there independent organizations that will do this for you and is it very costly? by HBInterview on January 10, 2001

Answer 10 - The Mystery Shopper Assessment tests access to service from the consumer/customer/patient perspective -- walking a mile, so to speak, in the customer's mocassins. The Mystery Shopper calls the organization being "tested", usually in the guise of a consumer, to see what it's REALLY like to call in for service. The Mystery Shopper will often present a scenario (e.g., a nonurgent medical problem for which she wants assistance) and see how the telephone staff responds and what service is like. Alternatively, a Mystery Shopper can go in-person to an organization/facility/clinic, as a consumer or as an observer, to see what the in-person experience is like. The in-person Mystery Shopper looks at the facility, access to the building, the interior of the facility, staff appearance, staff interactions with consumers/patients, how quickly he receives service, etc. Whereas surveys are quantitative market research, the Mystery Shopper assessment is a form of qualitative research that gives a real-time, three-dimensional, sometimes emotion-laden view of the actual consumer experience.

Mystery Shopper assessments can be done internally, by current or/former consumers, by graduate students, by board members, or by paid consultants. There are limits to the extent that they can be done formally by staff -- staff "cover" is quickly blown and there are trust issues around checking up on one's own staff. However, staff and board should frequently do informal Mystery Shopper assessments -- in other words, they should call and drop by at frequent intervals, with the customer "glasses"/perspective on, to see what it's like to be a customer of their organization. How many times did the telphone ring? Was the person friendly? etc. Consumers can also be engaged to conduct Mystery Shopper assessments, either as volunteers or on a paid basis. This represents an exciting new area. Finally, paid consultants with expertise in conducting Mystery Shopper assessments can be engaged. Fees can be modest, or not, depending upon the scope of the project (e.g., number of calls, sophistication of report, how much consulting is bundled with assessment, etc.) and, of course, how expensive the consultant is. by Deborah Lewis on January 11, 2001
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Question 11 - Looking at question #9 it seems the support for "magic phrases" has to come from the top. Do you find organizations that have good receptionists have that same personal courtesy as part of the organizational culture? by HBInterview on January 10, 2001

Answer 11 - The short answer is yes! Isolated pockets of receptionist excellence are possible in organizations with negative cultures; however, when most receptionists have that personal courtesy to which you refer, there is usually something in the water and the air in the organization that support this. Respect and personal courtesy are, in these cases, definitely a part of the culture and a multi-level phenomenon. Always pay attention to receptionist behavior and you will have a really good litmus test for the overall organization.
by Deborah Lewis on January 11, 2001
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Question 12 Thank you for spending time with us this week. You have focused on a position that traditionally does not get much attention.

If you look at the healthcare industry in general, are we lagging behind, keeping pace or ahead of other industries in our level of customer service? Why or Why not? by HBInterview on January 11, 2001

Answer 12 - It's been my pleasure spending time with you this week! I agree with you that this is an area that does not get adequate "air time". One would think that the heatlh care industry would be leading the way when it comes to customer service -- after all, patients, who are often in pain and sharing very personal issues, would seem to deserve an extra degree of courtesy and caring. In reality, the health care industry is in a rapid catch-up mode as compared to other industries such as retail, hotel or banking. While managed care has created its own set of customer problems, it is, nonetheless, forcing providers to subject themselves to quality scorecards and service requirements. Medical practices are increasingly viewing themselves as businesses with an obligation to provide adequate service so that they won't lose customers. Patients are more assertive now in what they are willing to put up with -- when the nurse asks you your weight today, you are no longer willing to say "1 hour" (forgive the pun!). I risk losing a popularity contesnt when I say this, but the attitude that physicians are "MD-ities" is gradually changing. Having said that, the health care industry has a ways to go before it catches up with other industries for whom Mystery Shopper assessments and customer service training are the norm.
by Deborah Lewis on January 12, 2001

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