Whether buying a car, renting a hotel room or hiring a plumber, nearly every purchasing decision is based on quality, cost and service. Historically, such decision-making criteria has not been required of healthcare transactions, but that is shifting. Healthcare organizations must begin leveraging the value of the products they deliver and infusing customer service into every interaction to remain competitive in this changing market.
Provider quality indicators are inconsistent and often are too cumbersome for consumers. Costs are hardly transparent, although some progress is being made. And service can vary widely from one department to the next within the same organization. What should healthcare executives do to address such an issue?
In spring 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched its Value-Driven Healthcare Initiative to help patients get better information about the quality and cost of care. A year later, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt announced that "more than 100 million Americans are now served by health plans that are committed to providing consumers with transparent quality and cost information." This comes at a critical time when the rise of consumer-directed health plans is intensifying consumers' interest in and awareness of the true cost of care. Research shows that consumers who pay for their own health charges tend to use healthcare services differently than when a third-party payer is covering it.
As cost transparency penetrates the healthcare market, pricing may not be the consumers' sole choice driver. Standardized quality indicators that are consistent and easy to comprehend will become an expected factor in the equation. To stay competitive, healthcare organizations will have to continually demonstrate that they deliver a high-quality product and be prepared to back up their claims.
With transparency in cost and quality rising to the level of a consumer expectation, the remaining differentiating factor in healthcare is customer service. And consumers will seek out the personalized experience even if it means traveling a greater distance.
The healthcare industry is being forced to shift its paradigm from thinking of constituents as members or patients to retail consumers who expect outstanding service at a reasonable price with high-quality outcomes and choices. Consumers deserve and demand compassionate and professional service at every touchpoint along the care continuum. The key to accomplishing this is developing a service culture featuring customer service that is consistent and consumer focused.
The customer service experience at each touchpoint is critical to stay competitive. Customer service is a true financial issue. Multiple studies have illustrated the financial impact of overall consumer satisfaction in healthcare. One study from Press Ganey found that "patient satisfaction influenced direct measures of financial performance including: bond rating, core margin, earnings per adjusted admission, earnings per patient day, liquidity, managed care contracts, market share, net margin and profit margin." With new customers six times more costly to acquire than existing customers, healthcare organizations must emphasize retaining consumers – as if they were in a retail business.
Consumers will lose patience with less-than-stellar customer service; and, in turn, healthcare providers will lose patients. It is time for healthcare executives to embrace the vitality of customer service.