It was hard to miss, even from my office. The words were unmistakable: “I’m sorry you feel that way sir; have a nice life!” Slam!
I got up slowly from my desk and walked into the other room. I recognized the voice, and I was surprised because she was usually one of the calmest people in the office. I walked over to her, and I could see that she was still upset. In my own way, I asked her if things were okay.
“No, they’re not okay. This guy was just impossible. I tried to help him out, but he wasn’t listening to anything I had to say. He kept yelling and screaming at me, and I just lost it.”
The business of healthcare is the business of people. Just like retail, it takes many people to come through your doors in order for you to be successful. Unlike retail, most of the people who come through your doors aren’t necessarily coming willingly. They come because they’re not feeling well, or for testing to make sure they’re okay, or to be with someone who’s not doing well. Their emotions are already on high alert when they walk through our doors. When it comes to paying for healthcare services, their emotions kick into an even tenser mode.
My phone rang; I was expecting it. I walked back into my office and said hello. What came at me from the other end was a man screaming and cussing at me. I’ve always told my staff that they didn’t have to ever accept someone else’s bad behavior, whether it was over the phone or in person. I did what many have said you shouldn’t do; I hung up. A couple of minutes later, the phone rang again, and I picked up and said hello. The same man was on the phone, and he was screaming and cussing some more; I hung up again.
Another few minutes passed and the phone rang one more time. I picked it up and said hello. This time, there was a pause on the other end of the line. Finally, the man asked “Are you going to hang up on me again?” I answered “Depends; are you going to continue cussing at me, or are you going to talk to me so that I can help you?” He chose the latter, and five minutes later, he was thanking me for all the help I’d given him, and apologizing for his behavior.
What had I done that was so remarkable? I listened to what he had to say. When I was reviewing the account he was asking about, I saw that it was an inpatient claim, and his wife had passed away while being a patient in our hospital. It occurred 2 months earlier, and it was obvious that he was still dealing with the emotions of his loss. Receiving a hospital bill after such an event can sometimes trigger strong emotions in people when they’re still in the process of recovery; I have personal experience with this.
There are many healthcare entities who tell staff that handles patient calls to get them resolved in a very short period of time. But healthcare is something different; we can’t always afford to try to run our patients through the time mill, because we don’t always know the circumstances which brought them to our doors. We can’t always have our collectors hammering patients for outstanding balances without knowing the state of affairs.
There are five main points that I felt needed to be addressed:
1. When you get the name and account number of the account in question, try to look quickly to see if there are any extenuating compassion circumstances you should know. Many healthcare facilities have a place where they can notate when a patient is deceased. If not, you should look into creating a process where this information can be seen easily.
2. Listen fully to what the customer has to say before you try to answer their questions. Most people try to answer what they perceive the question is without fully understanding what the real issue is. Sometimes, what’s sitting in front of your face isn’t the problem.
3. If needed, express condolences before attempting to solve a patient’s issues. Healthcare personnel, no matter what position they have, should always try to put themselves in the position of being the patient or the family member; wouldn’t we all appreciate a little compassion coming our way in times of distress?
4. Be understanding, but never take abuse. Emotions can run high, but we set the standard for how we talk to our customers. We deserve to expect that same standard of courtesy, within reason based on circumstances, and when we don’t get it, we’re allowed to save ourselves from abuse. Never give it back; that’s not acceptable. But if you can’t get the other person to calm down, try to pass it on to a supervisor, or leave the conversation.
5. Don’t rush through a conversation until the issue has been solved. Trying to get through a call to meet time standards usually means someone’s getting the short end of the stick, and no one is left satisfied. Customers may not always be calling for our benefit, but often the information they impart can help us get claims paid.
I had a meeting with my patient representatives and collections staff, and discussed these points. I always felt that it helped our customer service efforts for our facility. The number of calls I used to receive from disgruntled patients drastically decreased. I know the mood of my personnel was uplifted, because they now had some tools to go along with their technical skills. And who among us doesn’t love working in harmony?