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The most important quality for a healthcare customer service agent to have

Posted November 27, 2018 - Updated March 17, 2022
Heart and stethoscope

Healthcare is no longer something that happens solely at the doctor’s office.

According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of Americans struggle with at least one chronic illness such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, depression or chronic pain conditions.

At the same time, doctor shortages in North America are becoming more acute. The Association of American Medical Colleges recently reported that by 2030, the U.S. could be short 120,000 physicians.

These phenomena conspire to create conditions where people’s healthcare is distributed across a number of care providers and channels – in the home, on the phone, via online forums and wellness apps, at gyms, therapists’ offices and more.

Regardless of touchpoint, however, providers who genuinely demonstrate empathy at every turn stand to gain people’s trust — and business — every time.

Why empathy matters

The Oxford dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It’s different from sympathy, which is more about expressing pity for another’s misfortune.

Empathy has been proven to assist in the building of positive relationships and to help a person remain calm, energetic, creative and resilient in the face of stressful situations. For this reason, it’s important for healthcare companies to recognize the power empathy has in improving relationships with patients. Beyond recognition, however, healthcare companies can stand out by designing empathy right into their approach to customer and patient experience.

Start with your agents — they’re the ones most frequently interacting with your customers. Agents need to have a high level of compassion because they are helping people with health issues. Patience is demanded of those who suffer from chronic diseases, and effective healthcare customer service echoes that patience right back.

How do you create empathetic customer service?

It’s no secret that empathy is a major factor in the effective delivery of healthcare — but how exactly do you make sure your company’s entire customer service workforce is genuinely empathetic?

The multichannel distribution of healthcare and the legal framework for healthcare privacy in the U.S. make it challenging for customer service agents to know all the problems a person is facing. As such, empathy cannot be conditional based on how sick a person might be; it has to be a universally expressed sentiment regardless of a customer’s condition.

Empathetic scripting is a guiding light in the contact center, but there are more effective ways of promoting this human quality. First, empowering agents to mine their empathy from a personal place can help them make better customer connections.

Companies need to create caring and empathetic interactions, and part of that comes down to training. For example, if you’re providing customer support for a healthcare device that might be used by those with tactile symptoms, like patients with diabetes, then a training exercise where agents try to use the equipment while wearing gloves can give them a sense of the challenges the customer might be facing.

Recognizing and rewarding agents for personal, thoughtful customer care is a good way to sustain and innovate upon a commitment to humane customer experiences. As well, practicing what you preach by having a caring culture and an empathetic workplace for your agents is an excellent way to lead by example.

How technology is building an empathetic patient experience

It’s important to keep in mind that creating an empathetic patient experience is not only centered on just the manner in which you speak to people. It’s great to have nice customer service agents on the phone, but it’s a moot point if a patient has to go through 20 menu options to talk to a human. As a Harvard Business Review states, “avoidable suffering that results from dysfunction of the delivery system” can be a major pain point in healthcare.

Designing call-routing mechanisms and interactive voice response (IVR) menus from an empathetic point of view is an easy way to imbue the automated part of customer experience with a sense of humanity. Offering a caller the option early on to speak to a human or report a problem can let customers know you are mindful of their time and energy.

Meanwhile, creating dedicated customer service “pods” that take care of a set roster of patients and then routing calls accordingly — rather than forcing customers to talk to a different agent each time — can foster customer trust.

Additionally, creating dynamic self-serve options such as chatbots and searchable FAQs can help patients get answers to non-critical issues. Having an extensive self-help database and a bot to assist in search can sway people away from calling in for every single hiccup.

As illness and injury can make a person feel helpless, even seemingly simple ways of supporting customers’ abilities to help themselves throughout their healthcare journeys can have an empowering effect.

Empathy is a renewable resource

As author and medical executive, Dr. Thomas Lee writes: “Technical excellence is not enough. Safety is not enough. Efficiency is not enough. [They] have to be reliable in every way, including delivery of care that is empathic. Excellence means consistency in delivering care the way it should be — for every patient every time.”

Lee is referring to clinicians, but the quote is relevant to all members of a healthcare team — doctors, nurses, insurance providers and even contact centers. Each one is a pillar that supports the overall healthcare customer experience, and each is responsible for delivering empathetic support.

The integrity of this structure will only become more important as populations age, chronic illness expands, doctors become increasingly scarce and the delivery of healthcare gets more personalized and decentralized. Luckily, the unifying undercurrent of all this — human empathy — is something that can be found in unlimited supply.

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