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Behind the Call Center

September 1, 2007
by Buck Buchanan
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Maximizing hospital call centers is not just a matter of goals, relationships and human interaction, it's about more efficient IT

Buck Buchanan

Buck Buchanan

IT departments can play a critical role in facilitating relationships between hospitals and consumers. Information provided through a variety of human "touch-points" encourages residents to feel connected — and increasingly loyal — to the hospital. While consumers expect to be able to communicate via the Web or by phone, they often want to talk with a live person rather than (or in addition to) clicking on a link. Since routing calls to individual departments is cumbersome with no guarantee that callers receive a timely response, call centers are the best solution.

When administration comes to IT with a directive to establish a call center, there's more involved than tweaking some commercially available software. There are issues of space, hardware and software, determining information needed by administration and how it should be collected and manipulated, personnel, call center staff training and monitoring, and, of course, budgeting and measuring ROI. So the question is: buy an out-of-the-box call center application, design and build a system from the server up, or outsource it?

To determine the best route, find out:

  • Call center goals.

  • Caller data the organization needs and how often.

  • Services the call center will provide (i.e., physician referrals, class registration, appointment pre-registration, hospital discharge follow-up calls, or cross-selling other services).

  • How the hospital wants the call center to handle other calls, such as emergencies, and direct patient-room and physician calls.

Setting it up

Each call advisor needs a computer, telephone (VoIP or TDM) with headset, and enough acoustic isolation. The phone system has to be able to handle the volume of incoming calls. The hospital's existing phone switching equipment must facilitate Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) software to identify callers (using integrated database information) and appropriately distribute calls, ensuring that callers are not kept waiting.

Call center software must produce a satisfactory experience for both the caller and the call advisor. The interface needs to provide appropriate prompts for the call advisor, in terms that sound natural when spoken; leading them simply through a series of steps that meet the caller's needs and allow the call advisor to gather the necessary data to meet the hospital's goals. Information such as physicians, classes and events will need continuous updating.

If the call center provides physician referrals, the system must rotate physician names to ensure even referral distribution. The search algorithm has to meet the level of precision requested. (For example, a female ob-gyn in town X who speaks Spanish and accepts XYZ insurance.)

Integrating Web and phone capabilities involves a whole new set of applications and ability to integrate. For example, both need to be able to accept credit card payments for classes; and both need up-to-the-minute class enrollment numbers so they don't oversubscribe. Caller data also must be collected and integrated from both venues.

Once the system is in place, have advanced users test it to work out the bugs and ensure that system-flow and prompt-wording guarantee a pleasant customer experience. Once call center staff are trained, marketing begins adding call center information to hospital promotions and the phones start ringing.

Collecting Data

There is no limit to the ways marketing and other departments want information mined, sorted, shaped and dissected. They want to know who called, how they got the number, what they wanted, what referrals or cross-sells they were offered, and so on. They want to see trends by ZIP code, by age, by medical condition and by response to current marketing programs, such as direct mail campaigns.

IT needs to provide a system that will filter call records against hospital admissions and program enrollments to produce the numbers used to measure ROI for the call center itself, as well as for other marketing campaigns.

According to a 2004 Solucient (Evanston, Ill.) study, the average call center caller generates $13,848 in hospital charges within 12 months after calling versus $5,524 for patients overall. Furthermore, every hospital call center call represents more than $4,000 in downstream charges within 12 months.

The call center, whether it is on the hospital campus or states away, is invisible to the caller who assumes the call is answered at the hospital switchboard. But it performs a critical role in acquiring and retaining patients. It can be done well in-house, but IT has to approach it carefully, looking at the project and its costs from all sides. Establishing and running an effective call center is more than plug and play. Do it poorly and it's a drain on staff, budgets and consumer confidence. Done right, it's an information goldmine and, potentially, a healthy profit center for years to come.

Buck Buchanan ( is vice president of information technology for The Beryl Companies in Bedford, Texas