Virtual receptionist, phone menu, teletracks, telephone tree...whatever you may call it, it’s clear that we’re referring to the sometimes infuriating, automated voice you’re greeted by on the other side of the phone line when trying to reach a customer service agent, pharmacist, doctor, etc.
Telephone trees are essentially sequences of directionable synapses, routing callers to the appropriate department, team, or individual, of an organization. Consequently, these virtual menus act as gatekeepers, first points of access, and windows into the customer service strategy of that organization.
Ten years ago, teletracks were likely the most systematic method to directing customers and patients to the right place or person. However, with growing “we want it yesterday” millennial attitude and healthcare consumerism, there’s been a massive movement to expedite consumer experience through the removal of human interaction. One such response by several industries is online self-scheduling.
But many companies, medical groups, and health systems maintain their automated telephone menus. And despite consumer pushes for efficiency, we still generally dread the commanding robotic voice on the other end. We want a human to pick-up.
Why is this? And how do hospitals and health systems make use of their phone mazes? How do their client and patient populations respond? And how do we balance new-age consumer demands with multi-channel access, and just the perfect dash of autonomy in the process?
If your organization still utilizes this practice, you might be interested to hear what we’re seeing, and some of our recommendations.
Decide on a Goal
Choose one: Employee Centric or Patient Centric. Discuss with leadership at your practice what you’re trying to accomplish with your phone tree. Is the goal to speedily reallocate as many patients as possible to their intended destinations or are you trying to ensure that your employees aren’t getting the wrong type of calls? If it’s the former, you’ll likely have scheduling an appointment as #1 and everything else afterwards. If it’s the latter, you might place “schedule an appointment” last on the menu list of options so most people who could be helped by others have selected those options before getting to a scheduler. While the aim might be two-fold: balancing incoming calls and striving for positive patient experience, it is worthwhile to solidify the primary mission so you don’t end up with the worst of both worlds - unhappy patients and frustrated employees. Statistically we don’t have the right answer, but we think that the patient-centric approach likely takes the win on this one.
Do this, Not that
Often times, when calling into a health care delivery organization, you’ll hear the message, “Call volumes are currently higher than usual, so wait times may be longer.” This message serves to manage patient expectations, but it can often do more harm than good. It adds to the exasperation patients feel in not being able to reach the person they need in a timely manner, and it may cause some patients to hang up immediately (and try to schedule something with your competitor). We suggest adding more actionable, informational messaging--even if high call volumes are a reality. You might use something along the lines of, “Please note that we now offer new online patient self-scheduling on our website for both new and existing patients.” Moreover, construct messages that predict the top reasons patients are calling, and provide other ways they can get the information they need (i.e. a patient portal link to view their upcoming appointment time, or directions to the “About us” page of your website to view a clinic’s address). Nevertheless, keep menu options and directions concise.
No, nothing illegal here. But do some research into what other industries’ best practices are, and which most closely align with your practice’s access center goals. Amazon asks you whether you would like to be called or emailed, and puts you in queues towards connecting with the next available representative. Contrarily, if you were to call Zappos customer service, you’d be welcomed by a human every time -- regardless of your need. There’s something to be said for devoting resources to demonstrating your commitment to patient access.
Note, however, that the Zappos model means that you’ll need to do a lot of cross-training so that the agent that responds to a call can actually help the patient. That means that you need to map your goals against your resources and make sure that you’re setting yourself up to succeed: being transferred from agent to agent delivers poor patient experience and forces your employees to focus on low-yield tasks.
No matter your phone tree strategy, manage it the same way you would your practice’s social media feed or its website. Update the entrance options for major holidays, closures, or a doctor unexpectedly being out of the office.
If you’re considering revamping your teletracks structure even a little, measure things like handle time, number of transfers, and first contact resolution. Take note of how lengthy a process it is for the average patient to get to where they need to be. Tim Reichert, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Eagles Landing Family Practice, notes that at their practice, the majority of calls are for appointments. For this reason, they made it the very first option. Tim also stated that patients calling into the billing department weren’t always waiting until the third or fourth menu option to hear the billing direction, but were clicking earlier to try and reach an actual person. Thus, they moved billing to option two. Above all, they kept their options brief, and paralleled them to the volume of certain patient needs/requests. These metrics will be the key to restructuring, and telltale signs of how your patients perceive your customer service.
Having an option that allows patients to select that they would like to speak to a team member at any time. Yes, it might lengthen the introduction process, but it demonstrates that your practice is devoted to accessibility.
When you send out patient satisfaction surveys, include a component about your telephone menu. Ask what could have made the process simpler or if there’s another option you should add to adopt to patient requests.
Depending on your patient population demographics, have multilingual recordings. Ease the process for non-English speakers, and strive for better health outcomes.
Even if you are a practice, hospital, or health system who has added online scheduling to your patient consumer repertoire, it’s important to consider all channels of access, and ensure you’re making the best use of your telephone menu tree.