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Valuing customer service in healthcare

Just over a decade ago, members of Arkansas Children’s Hospital’s management decided to go to Disney World. It wasn’t a fun-and-games trip, although fun was had. They went to learn about developing a culture that would support everyone working at the hospital and everyone using hospital services. Arkansas Children’s was ahead of a trend recently taking hold in the healthcare industry: valuing customer service.

“We didn’t adopt Disney,” said David Berry, senior vice president and chief operating officer at the hospital. “What we have is not an Arkansas Children’s Hospital hyped up on Disney, but what we did (we) developed our culture based on those principles that Disney taught.”

Those principles are leadership excellence, people management (selection, training and engagement), quality service, brand loyalty and creativity/innovation, said Pat Jordan, the custom solutions manager for the Disney Institute, the business consulting arm of the Walt Disney Company. DI launched Building a Culture of Healthcare Excellence, a program geared toward helping healthcare companies align their culture around improving the patient, or customer, experience, last year, but has had a long history of working with healthcare companies, including Siemens Healthcare, Humana and Florida Hospital for Children.

“No matter what your business, making customers feel special or cared for will make all the difference,” Jordan said.

Arkansas Children’s took that message to heart and began rolling out a customer service program that continues to this day. The hospital has adopted service and behavioral standards that shape how employees treat each other and patients. It also has incorporated facility design – creating a playground for children and an outdoor garden for patients and their families that features a secluded area just for employees – that supports its mission of “giving care, love and hope.”

While Arkansas Children’s hasn’t done a formal return on investment analysis of the “considerable” amount it spent to get DI training, Berry said the training was “worth every nickel,” considering the changes the hospital has seen since it began using the DI experience to shape its culture.

Some of the outcomes the hospital has seen since beginning its customer service program include improvements in patient and employee satisfaction scores and being named as one of Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For four times: in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

“It would be very difficult to tie what we learned at the Disney Institute into anything specific here,” Berry said. “But we know that our staff understand care, love and hope. We know that our staff understand the behavioral standards and the service standards, and we know that people like to work here.”

Whether a healthcare company decides to pay for customer service training or not, they can’t ignore the importance of customer service, said Vaughn Kauffman, principal with the Health Industries Advisory at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) – especially with the Affordable Care Act tying patient satisfaction to dollars.

In July, PricewaterhouseCoopers released an analysis looking at consumer expectations in relation to their healthcare experiences. It examined data from its Customer Experience Radar, a national survey of 6,000 consumers across close to a dozen industries, including banking, hospitality, retail and healthcare.

“In many respects the consumer expectations in healthcare is tracking closely with other industries, particularly when it comes to transparency, convenience, speed of responsiveness – (these) are areas that other industries have invested a lot of time and money improving,” said Kauffman. “I think it’s an important lesson learned for healthcare organizations whether they be the insurance companies, the providers or the big drug companies, to understand the customer wants and needs, and applying those learnings to their product strategy and their service strategy.”

While Kauffman believes that customer service training is invaluable to healthcare companies, one of the simplest things companies can do to improve patient/customer experience and build trust, he said, is to engage patients/customers through tailored feedback forums like social media, blogs and text messaging – tools that are not nearly as costly as engaging a consultant for training or going to the Disney Institute, but result in big rewards.