Customer Service in Healthcare
The Prescription (Rx) For Success
By William K. Pollock
Healthcare today remains in crisis. While legislators and politicians continue debating about whether to restructure the entire system or simply change parts within it, many healthcare services organizations are simply struggling for survival in an increasingly uncertain environment. These organizations are also finding themselves faced with a combination of underperforming quality and cost management controls; uncertainty about the eventual impact of healthcare reform on their respective bottom lines; and, indirectly, sluggish revenue growth curves due to the overly burdensome capitation measures which have drastically reduced their customers' overall "buying power" and, hence, ability to take full advantage of their services.
However, it may be argued that organizations that have successfully implemented customer service-focused business plans are also most likely to survive any shakeout. The strategic planning process stimulates an environment that allows organizations to become "living and learning systems" where management is able to make critical decisions based on "hard data", and employees are empowered to play an integral role in the identification of problems and implementation of strategies to achieve success. Success is ultimately measured in terms of improved service quality, higher levels of customer satisfaction and increased cost savings/profits.
Improved customer service is generally also the result of the implementation of an integrated business management strategy with the objective of attaining optimum business performance. Customer service, in this sense, refers to all aspects of business performance including the ability of the organization to identify, meet and, in some cases, exceed key internal and external customer requirements; the effective application of the most efficient and productive business processes available; and the fostering of both an internal and external customer environment that assures continuous quality improvement from existing levels of performance.
Further, any services organization that hopes to effect significant and sustainable improvement in business performance must first have a firm understanding of the markets in which it serves, its strategic goals and objectives, and how it is presently structured or organized to fulfill those goals and objectives. These are also fundamental components of strategic planning that all organizations should address prior to embarking on any substantial customer service improvement program.
In a sense, healthcare professionals today are experiencing what many manufacturers had previously learned in the past. The lesson is that "localized", limited in scope, and often nearly isolated uni-functional or uni-departmental improvement efforts will provide only limited results to the success of the overall business. More simply stated, "piecemeal" does not work. Implementing improvement strategies strictly on "pieces" of the total business generally results in disastrous situations. Further, as the healthcare industry knows only too well, outcome measurement without process measurement also provides only a piece of the picture.
However, in a multi-departmental, or enterprisewide, customer environment (typified by the hospital/clinic market base), every department has its own unique set of customer requirements with respect to customer service and support and, as such, services providers must also be able to ultimately address each and every one of their oftentimes disparate sets of requirements if it ever hopes to adequately meet its customers' total needs.
What distinguishes the healthcare services market from other services segments is the high degree of independence exhibited by those decision-makers who run the various departments - the physicians and department heads. This high degree of independence generally has the effect of limiting the "realm" of these individuals to their respective departmental environs. The difficulty here for the services organization is that it will still have to deal with each of the individual members of the customer/prospect organization before they could reasonably hope to convert the services prospect into a customer "win." Complete buy-in from each of these individuals and their respective departments is absolutely essential for successful contract closure.
Many measures of business performance exist in healthcare today including, but not limited to, improved cycle time, increased customer satisfaction and reduced costs. Legal and regulatory performance measures are also pervasive, for obvious reasons. The ability of the hospital or clinic to quickly and accurately register and bill patients are two frequently used industry measures. Such measures can easily be related to patient outcome and satisfaction, as well as to overall hospital or system costs. Both, however, are also heavily dependent on the quality of the systems, equipment, maintenance and professional services required to make it all work. Accordingly, it becomes crucial for both the hospital/clinic and its services provider to be able to identify the most relevant performance measures, focus on the systems and support that are critical to execute the appropriate processes; and make certain that all specific measures can be directly related to overall business/process performance and customer satisfaction.
For those who have become frustrated by or, perhaps, disillusioned with, the growing demands of the healthcare services industry, it is important not to blame the concept of strategic planning, for it is only within this planning context that the business objectives of any services organization are going to be attained in such a competitive market. What should be examined, rather, is the joint commitment to customer service and support from both the users' and the providers' perspectives. The most effective approach to improving customer service is one that is both comprehensive and coordinated, and designed to stimulate continuous improvement in service performance.
William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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