I recently had an odd experience with customer service in healthcare.
As a part of working abroad, it’s sometimes necessary to do a health checkup as asked by the company or foreign government. I recently did mine. Besides claiming that I was supposedly obese despite clearly being reasonably fit, and a minor thing with my ear, everything came back thumbs up.
When I came back for my follow-up about the ear-thing, customer service got confused and insisted that I do another extended vitals check. It’s not the end of the world but it made me wonder what else they were confused about — it doesn’t exactly instill confidence, hey?
After the experience, with a curious mind of how customer service in healthcare generally is, I went down the rabbit hole researching if there’s a benchmark or metric for tieing customer service to revenue, and if it’s possible to measure an increase in revenue based on an improvement in customer service.
I couldn’t find much practical research or case studies on customer service and patient care specifically for the healthcare industry but as luck would have it, it turns out that there is another industry focused specifically on earning revenue from excellent customer service: the hospitality industry.
People love to feel special. In hospitality, at the highest levels, a nice property is table stakes, and the guest experience, systems, and extraordinary training make the difference.
This article is a recap of what I found in my non-scientific research. Returning patients has long been known as the lifeblood of any healthcare business and I’m exploring whether customer service can be turned from a necessary expense putting out fires into a revenue-generating differentiator.
I should preface all of this by saying that there are some markets or patients that don’t value good customer service over price or physician quality, just like some hotel guests prefer to stay at a 3-star hotel and save their money. So this doesn’t apply to every market out there.
How the hospitality industry uses excellent customer service to drive revenue
To first understand what this could look like, we need to understand where we are now.
In general, to measure customer service in healthcare, we have tools like NPS (Net Promoter Score) and what feels like a million types of online reviews like those on Google and Facebook. The problem is that they don’t really help us understand how good service ties back to revenue and if better customer service truly does make a difference or if it’s just an assumption that we all take for granted.
I’ve been talking to experts in both the hospitality and healthcare industry but I haven’t been able to find any metric within customer service that we can clearly tie directly back to an increase in revenue if that metric is increased, but, at the very least, the expected service affects revenue long term since it won’t be competitive against direct competitors with better service standards.
The most linear and direct relationship between revenue and service is in the loyalty program: if the guest is happy with the experience they may become a member of the loyalty program and that’s when two things happen. First they collect points and get more for less when they return and second, the service level increases as the brand learns (and remembers!) the guest’s specific preferences no matter which property they stay at around the world.
The most simple and tangible example I can think of is from Singapore Airlines. I recently flew with them and noticed that they offer customers to sign-in on the in-flight screen in order to save their media preferences and how much of a certain movie they’ve watched, so they can pick up where they left off later.
Guests at this level often have specific requests like food choices, staff’s behavior (e.g. greeting them by name) or room preparation. That’s why some studies suggest that in the hospitality industry they live and die by the loyalty program in the long term.
Certain businesses in the hospitality industry run daily morning briefings covering the ordinary, the out of ordinary (like a VIP guest visiting), upcoming plans, and a recap of any complaints or positive feedback recently. Nothing slips through the cracks.
Different scenarios are preplanned and most situations have playbooks to solve situations long before they appear. Small details about a guest will be keyed into the database, even a complaint to the guard about the hotel will be passed on so that the relevant team can handle it, and retrieved the next time the guest stays at one of the hotels around the world.
They run like a well-oiled engine, day after day, to ensure that the guest has a great experience, and the most important things get escalated to a weekly service meeting if it’s relevant for senior management.
How can we take advantage of this for customer service in healthcare?
Next, let’s look at examples of what it might look like if we transfer the hospitality approach to the healthcare industry. There are many types of healthcare businesses, so I’ll use a few popular examples to demonstrate based on the business units or business purposes that are common in the tech world today.
The first example is a pharmacy with pharmacists on the customer service team recommending medicine to elderly patients with multiple health challenges, where one drug can be effective against one disease but counterproductive against another.
You’d think that was already solved but unfortunately, I’ve heard many stories from patients where specialists don’t talk with each other and recommend medicine that works well for one purpose but overall might not be the best fit for the patient.
Similar to how Atul Gawande uses checklists we might solve that by preparing lists of commonly used medicine for common diseases along with notes on which other medicine it is often paired with but shouldn’t.
That can help give the correct medicine to the patient and ease the process of deciding on the correct choice during the sales process for the pharmacist. It could even be taken as far as rearranging certain shelves in the warehouse so fulfilling is smoother if you discover a pattern around certain product combos being sold together over and over again.
Another example is sick care, clinics, and in-depth clinical checks. Here the service level could be focused on the in-clinic experience such as during the initial waiting period before seeing the physician, throughout the exam or consultation, and while waiting for the results. The service can also be extended to clarify the process and what to expect via email or a phone call in advance of the exam. Checklists can also save the day here.
If this seems basic, that’s because it is. Unfortunately, it isn’t implemented well at all clinics and it’s incredibly frustrating for the patient to have to reach out to the clinic in order to gather this information ourselves. We humans love to know what to expect in advance.
The use cases for telemedicine follow a pattern similar to that of a clinic but often serve as a preliminary check before potentially getting a more in-depth check in-person since there are just some things that aren’t viable to make a clinical diagnosis based on when video calling remotely.
The customer service here is mostly around booking the consultation, how to best contact the physician and the procedure from the physician at the end of the check-up, for example with a recommendation for further checks or a follow-up consultation in the future.
Across all services
Each of the clinical services benefits from great customer service but selling added customer service to each of the parts pales in comparison to a holistic experience we can offer where they are all combined like we know from the hospitality industry.
Across all services, customer service can also give an added benefit by offering patients their data long-term and helping them prevent diseases before they happen, which is more powerful than a last-minute fix.
It makes sense to look at it from the patient’s health perspective: through the lens of prevention and sick care, where each unit works together to support the entire health cycle of each patient rather than at each individual point of sale.
First things first. We have an ongoing challenge in the healthcare industry where some patients are more or less afraid to go to the doctor if they think something isn’t right. They fear what it might be and instead of getting it examined, they let it sit and try to ignore it until they can’t any longer.
We can partly solve that and many other minor hesitations within the relationship between the patient and the physician by giving the patient more positive experiences with physicians.
If we get more positive experiences and get into a behavior of going more often, the physician will become a more normal part of our lives instead of only when something bad happens. That will lead to more frequent checks which will make it easier to catch health problems early where they are often much easier to solve compared to when they have grown to the point that we have symptoms.
That alone will increase the number of patients throughout the year and thus, increase revenue, all other things being equal. It can be made more effective if we collect health data daily like vitals, food consumption and exercise, instead of the existing assessment based on the patient’s attempt to explain what’s wrong.
This almost certainly means that we’ll earn less revenue from medicine sold through the pharmacy, traditional clinic visits and examinations.
On the other hand, we are likely to earn more and higher quality revenue through long on-going subscriptions that include preventive checks and insights throughout our entire life as we now earn more when the patient is healthy rather than sick. It motivates the business to focus on keeping patients healthy rather than sick and that might even lead to a longer life (and thus a longer subscription).
Sick care will mostly continue as we know it, except we’ll have a huge advantage in actually fixing bad stuff because of our preventive work.
All other things being equal, that means we’ll get fewer major health problems to deal with. We’ll also understand the disease better when the patient is sick as long-term data and more frequent health check-ins give us meaningful upside for more effective treatment with fewer side effects.
Examples of smooth execution day to day
In my humble point of view, the beauty of hospitality is in the hidden systems behind the scenes that create the guest experience.
We can bring similar systems into the prevention side by systematically collecting patient data as shown above (with their consent of course), along with deriving insights that the patient can use to improve their health on a daily basis if they so please. Customer service is at the heart of all that, communicating between each health unit (pharmacy, clinic, telemedicine, etc.) and the patient.
Similar to how hotels might run daily and weekly service meetings, we can run similar ones to ensure that the business has no surprises in terms of complaints and that the patient has a terrific experience along with discovering the huge benefits of focusing more on preventive care.
Specifically, the customer service team might run a short briefing meeting every morning to cover items such as:
- Upcoming visits from VIPs and details about any specialized care they need or preferences they have
- Positive and negative reviews from all marketing channels along with any that are out of the ordinary and need further investigation
- Which playbook to follow (or deviate from) to bring the best experience for the upcoming situations
It also makes sense to track customer service data such as how long it takes to resolve a ticket, if a patient gets the answer they are looking for, the utilization of the staff against the number of patients, along with the number of proactive vs. reactive actions the staff takes towards patients, among others.
Especially, the last one can make a difference in the patient experience as it feels magical for customers when the business already knows what we want before we even tell them. The best part is that most patients want the same, so the patterns are fairly predictable meaning that we can create playbooks for common, and even uncommon scenarios.
The idea is not to watch the customer service team’s behavior like a hawk but rather to experiment with which types of metrics are relevant to measure over time to accurately judge the impact of customer service.
That also means we have to consider what we’ll do when things are going well. Some hotels decide to max out at 90% capacity because they want to be able to keep a high level of service. They essentially bet that guests will come back after a good experience and that it’ll ultimately earn them more than a few extra guests and the risk of a less than stellar experience.
We may run these meetings every morning to always be on top of things and then escalate any important situations to a weekly meeting, either for special attention or simply just company awareness.
Playbooks: the secret sauce of excellent customer service
It’s virtually impossible to run a smooth customer service experience at scale without playbooks as they offer us the opportunity to give a unique, warm, customer experience to many patients and repeat that feeling of being special we all love.
Hotels tend to have playbooks for every imaginable customer situation so the staff always know what to do in a given situation. These playbooks are updated every now and can be perfected over time. This is the key since we as customers don’t feel too comfortable interacting only with computers and robots when it comes to our health.
A customer service playbook tends to explain how we should react in certain situations, for example, if a patient is unhappy and complains, or if they feel as if they’ve been waiting for too long for their examination. It can both be reactive and proactive depending on what we’d like to achieve.
An example of a simple playbook is the approach we take when a patient is late for an examination at a clinic, along with how we react. We might start by explaining that we know it’s frustrating that the physician isn’t available but that they need the designated time for each patient in order to best help the patient they are with right now.
The playbook might also list out alternative steps to help the patient. For example, if there are no more available slots today but there are at another clinic nearby, we might book them in there if they are ok with it or even help them speak to a doctor via a telemedicine call.
How does the business side of customer service in healthcare look?
Up until now, we’ve been looking at the health and medical side of things. Now it’s time to look at the business side.
Sick care works well as a business proposition because most of us don’t want to worry about our health and we love the idea that we can get a quick fix when things are bad. On the business side, we can charge high prices and keep decent margins for the privilege but it presents one tricky situation when we want to create true scale: even though getting sick tends to follow a cyclical pattern, it’s challenging to predict when people get sick and need help.
That trickles down like a waterfall and makes it challenging to optimize the doctor utilization and keep an accurate amount of physicians ready when demand is high, and vice versa when it’s low. It also makes for a worse experience for the patient as they can have longer wait times and an overall worse experience. The same pattern is true for a pharmacy as it tends to follow the behavior of the clinic and the sick person.
That also makes the revenue sporadic, more difficult to predict and, I’d argue, of lower quality as we can’t depend on it. It doesn’t look that attractive compared to SAAS-like revenue where we get expected recurring revenue year in and year out.
This is where we have an opportunity to merge revenue with customer service as many businesses in the hospitality industry live or die by their loyalty program. Instead of paying for each visit to a doctor when we are sick and need a quick fix, we could get preventive help in advance.
That could be through a preventive loyalty program, where we automatically track our health vitals, consumption, and exercise, and have frequent telemedicine calls with doctors as we are ultimately paying for not being sick and avoiding long-term diseases we might’ve otherwise gotten.
The obvious challenge with all of this is that it can be challenging to make the argument for why people would pay for what feels like nothing compared to when they have clear symptoms.
Interestingly, some countries, such as those in Scandinavia, have already been working in a similar direction for years as the government is responsible for most medical bills. They have every incentive to get patients into preventive care and become healthier in the long term and in everyday life.
- The hospitality industry dominates good customer service and there are a few things we can learn from the industry
- Some examples are to run daily customer service meetings updating the team on positives and negatives, and prepare playbooks for situations that happens frequently
- Further reading