Boost patient experience at first point of contact: The call center

I recently worked with a hospital improve its cancer program. It had wonderful doctors and an up-to-date facility. Nurses were very patient-focused and the staff smiled a lot. What could be better?

Yet new patient volumes were sluggish and growth elusive. The hospital found the highly competitive local market very challenging, especially because differentiation--a meaningful point of difference--was pretty much non-existent. In truth, the area hospitals were all pretty much the same. How could it compete? Most of the ideas focused on the patient experience inside the hospital.

So instead, we decided to see what it was like as an outsider trying to find out more about the hospital options if we were diagnosed with cancer. We began our inquiry, with observational research and shopping the experience. We called hospitals in the region, as well as some nationally recognized leaders in cancer care, hoping to learn something of value.

We contacted 20 hospitals and quickly realized something was clearly missing: The basics of a good (let alone great) customer experience. I invite you to call your own call center and see how it presents your excellent services to your consumer.


The typical call experience went something like this:

  • After waiting multiple rings, an operator finally answered the call. We said: "My father has just had a positive diagnosis for prostate (or lung) cancer and we are evaluating his options. Could you please connect me with someone who could tell me more about how you treat prostate cancer?"
  • The responses:
    "What is the name of the patient?"
    (us) "No, my father is not at (name of hospital). I would like to learn more about your hospital's cancer services and how you would evaluate his prostate cancer."
    "What is his doctor's name?"
    (us) "He doesn't see one of your doctors."
    "Where did he get his diagnosis? He should go back there."
    Hang up!
  • We got passed along to another call center for oncology physicians and had to go through its prompts, none of which would connect us to anyone who could answer questions.
  • They referred us to their website.
  • They referred us to surgery department, which then referred us to a surgeon's office, but we had to call the office back directly at another number.

We experienced 18 of these types of encounters.

Then we called Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital. While each was different, they at least had an approach to cancer inquiries and cancer care that demonstrated they might actually care about a caller requesting information.

Of these national brands, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, was clearly in another space. The operator was immediately engaged, showed empathy towards me and expressed concern for my "father." She knew whom to connect me with--their cancer advocate, who introduced herself, expressed her concern for my father and explained how the Centers deliver care for cancer patients. Their well-thought-out call center process was all about making both the patient and the family feel important, cared about and listened to. The process was also easy to understand and made sense.

What startled us, was the sorry state of the rest of the call centers. The basic caring of the other healthcare organizations was totally missing in action at the first point of contact. Any effort to understand the needs of a cancer patient at that crucial point was back in the dark ages. The operators, supposedly, are there to answer a call in three rings and direct the caller to where he/she needs to go. For us, we would have been happy if they had, at the very least, answered the phone in less than 10 rings and greeted us with kindness.

True, most calls to a hospital's central number are from people wanting to be connected to a patient, seeking a physician or looking for an administrative department--billing or admissions. We clearly threw them a curve ball asking for information about their cancer protocols. But was that enough of an excuse not to:

  1. Answer the call promptly?
  2. Reflect the brand of the hospital in their voice?
  3. Utilize their communication skills?
  4. Demonstrate a willingness to try and find a solution to our inquiry?

Which led us to wonder: Why? With all the innovative work going on these days to respond to healthcare reform, almost everyone, it seems, forgets the telephone center--a necessary evil.

From our perspective, the call center seems an easy point of differentiation. How can a healthcare institution make a person's overall experience satisfyingly patient-focused and person-centered if they can’t even answer the phones well? And conversely, if they could create an amazing experience at that first touch point, maybe they could do the same throughout the entire patient and family experience.

Overwhelmingly, this whole experience felt like a time to pause and focus on the basics. While not innovative or sexy, the call center is essential. It must reflect well on you and add value to your organization, not dysfunction.

Remember: you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. Your call center is the first contact someone has with you. You certainly don't want to go to a hospital that cannot even get the phones answered satisfactorily nor provide an operator who can genuinely engage with you with emotion and empathy. It may seem small, but really, it is huge. And healthcare organizations better start paying attention, soon.

Andrea J. Simon, Ph.D., is a former marketing, branding and culture change senior vice president at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan. She also is president and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants.