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Do no harm: Managing the customer service challenges of healthcare product recalls

Over the past few years, Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to customers who said they were injured by the company’s Pinnacle hip implants. According to Reuters, a jury that awarded six New York consumers $247 million in 2017 found the product to be “defectively designed” and that the company had “failed to warn consumers about the risks.” To this day, Johnson & Johnson still faces more than 10,000 product liability lawsuits related to Pinnacle.

Recalls. You think they’ll never happen, until they do. In the healthcare and medical device industries, defects and malfunctions aren’t simply a nuisance, oftentimes they can cause irreversible harm and even death. In these critical instances, empathetic customer service teams that can quickly and effectively communicate with customers are integral to achieving better health outcomes that will ultimately help protect the patient and the company’s brand.

Your healthcare company has to recall a product. Now what?

Product recalls have become somewhat routine for consumers, but those that occur within the healthcare sector are of a different breed. When human lives are on the line, missteps can come at an incredibly high price. “Unlike other industries, in healthcare you have customers and patients dealing with life-altering or life-changing conditions. The last thing you want is for them to get a busy signal because your phone line is inundated due to a recall,” says Pat Mallon, TELUS International’s vice-president of business development.

Having people available 24/7 to pick up the phone, answer chat requests and reply to emails during a recall is of utmost importance to a company’s credibility. This ethos extends to social media as well, where one shared negative experience can reverberate endlessly if companies fail to step up.

“Brands are remembered for how they handled a crisis situation,” says Jonas Sickler, marketing director at, which helps individuals and companies preserve their good names. “When your customers’ health is being impacted by a recall, they need accurate information on demand. If questions go unanswered for hours or days, customers will lose trust in your ability to keep them safe,” says Sickler. “Public safety, accuracy of information and reaction time are the top priorities during these situations.”

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Managing the message

It’s impossible to be 100 percent prepared for recalls due to their unpredictability, but companies should have contingency plans in place that outline how to react in a variety of scenarios before they happen.

In this respect, timing is everything, says Andy Beal, an online reputation-management expert. According to Beal, companies’ reputations can suffer when it appears they’ve taken too long to address complaints — especially when those problems could potentially harm a person’s health and well-being.

To combat a time-lag between an identified problem and solution, contact centers can implement tracking and pattern recognition that can help a nascent problem get noticed faster.

Empowering customer service staff to report notable and repetitious customer complaints can also help a company get out in front of a problem. “Companies should look at the long term, and understand that staying ahead of the curve will demonstrate that they care about customers and about providing a safe product,” continues Beal. “They will quickly recover from the incident instead of having a cloud over their head.”

Having a communications protocol in place for such events is also far more helpful than trying to hammer out a strategy in the heat of the moment when the lid’s already been blown off. Sickler recommends using traditional media, press releases, email, social media and a ‘dark’ website that can be turned on in an emergency. (A dark website is maintained offline and only activated for crisis-management purposes.)

However, being proactive on its own isn’t enough. Companies also need to be transparent in their communications about the problems. According to Sickler, rumors start in the absence of information. “Holding facts back… can result in speculative stories that are worse than the actual scenario,” he adds.

Customer service best practices for healthcare recalls

Deploying proper, accurate and consistent messaging across all of a company’s channels requires prompt action and skilled customer service teams.

According to Mallon, companies need to adopt an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to self-service and customer support to mitigate the damage. “Call volumes peak exponentially during these types of scenarios. The key is to implement an interactive voice response and/or chatbot, and create a comprehensive FAQ document to manage and divert the incoming volume in order to free up the main line for patients’ questions,” he says.

Doing this, of course, takes resources. Training and scaling up the right talent quickly can be especially challenging for companies with in-house service teams. Partnering with a customer service provider with a breadth of experience in recalls can help save time, money and reputation.

According to Sickler, customers want to know the company understands their concerns and is actively working to prevent similar instances from happening in the future. Hiring naturally empathetic agents, and training them to calm aggrieved customers, can further ease concerns during a healthcare product recall.

Winding down from a crisis

Above all, the value of ongoing stellar customer service cannot be overstated. The good karma brands gain by delighting customers at each and every touchpoint is valuable currency to have ‘in the bank’ should a product recall occur.

Customer relationships, especially in the healthcare and medical devices sector, are based on a foundation of trust. Brands can achieve and cement that trust by prioritizing investments in customer service that will result in teams that understand and empathize with the customer point of view.

Unfortunately, none of these strategies can turn back time on a healthcare product recall. They can, however, work together to inspire consumer and patient trust to more readily forgive you as your company recovers and plans for the future.

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