Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories
Medical Lab Slashes Customer Response Times, Gains New Insight into Service Trends
Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories (PAML) of Spokane, Washington, was doing a great job testing specimens but knew it could improve customer service. After customers complained about lengthy response times, PAML invested in customer relationship management software for all customer-facing employees. The result: three-day response times have shrunk to minutes or hours, management can proactively monitor service metrics to avert problems, and employees can access up-to-date knowledge when customers call. PAML is now offering its improved customer service capability to partner hospitals.
They never saw it coming. Over the course of a month, Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories (PAML) of Spokane, Washington, inadvertently made a series of customer service missteps for a major client. None of the issues were related—for instance, there was a specimen handling problem in one department, a supply problem in another department, and a billing glitch. Each situation was resolved, but no one at PAML saw the big picture. Unfortunately, the customer did, and PAML ended up losing a large, long-time client.
“The customer knew that all these problems were going on, but we didn’t,” explains Rosalee Allan, who is Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer for PAML. “We were logging the issues one by one in different departments and solving them, but we didn’t see the trend.” In the disappointment following the customer’s departure, PAML spent three days sifting through problem report forms and customer service logs to catch up with the customer in figuring out what had gone wrong.
“Losing that customer was a wake-up call,” Allan says. “We knew we had to give our employees better tools with which to solve customer problems quickly and our management better tools with which to proactively monitor service issues before they became problems.”
PAML is the largest medical reference laboratory in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, offering a wide range of testing services to nearly 100 hospitals, thousands of clinics and physician offices, corporations, and even consumers, across a seven-state area. PAML has 1,300 employees and partnerships with several regional healthcare networks and laboratories.
In the medical testing business, labs are judged not only on their testing expertise and facilities but on their pre- and post-analytical systems. “Hospitals and clinics of course want accurate test results—that’s a given,” Allan explains. “But what they really judge us on are the services surrounding the testing—the speed of sample pickup, the efficiency of sample processing, and our ability to answer their questions and handle special requests along the way. It’s in these service areas that we win or lose customers. Unfortunately, there are thousands of process steps in our business, each one of which is a point where errors can occur.”
||We’ve been able to provide our customers with same-day responses, reducing wait times that used to range up to three days.
Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer, PAML
Adds Dr. Thomas Tiffany, CEO and President of PAML, “The best lab is the one the client doesn’t have to think about.”
However, the service path for PAML customers is complex, challenging PAML employees to keep tabs on many different data points. Customers call the supply department when they need additional test supplies, the billing department when they have billing questions, dispatch when they have samples for pickup, the IT department when they have a problem with a fax machine or printer connected to PAML systems, and the client services department for everything else.
Employees used to log customer calls in paper ledgers, but the data was never entered into a database, and paper logs eventually ended up in boxes beneath employee desks. To find answers to customer questions, employees either consulted the company’s lab information system—which records test results—or made phone calls and sent e-mail messages to colleagues. Sometimes, tracking down answers took as long as three days. “Customers rated us poorly on our response times,” Allan says. “The consequences of slow response on our part means delayed patient care, patient anxiety, and unhappy customers.”
The view from the executive level was even murkier. PAML leadership had no easy ability to track customer service issues and no companywide view of customer response rates and other key customer relationship metrics that would help it notice trends or possible problem issues. “We sat here unaware until a customer complained,” Allan says. “The customer had to tell us that there were problems with our business.”
PAML management knew what would help: replacing its paper-based customer call-tracking system with an electronic customer relationship management (CRM) system. Customer-facing employees would be able to use a CRM system to access a single database of customer data and record every customer contact. However, PAML management also knew that CRM projects had a high failure rate, because busy employees tend to resist learning unfamiliar systems and taking the time to enter data.
This was the chief reason why PAML selected Microsoft Dynamics™ CRM, after a broad evaluation of CRM products. “The Microsoft CRM software looks just like its e-mail client, which our employees use for e-mail messaging,” Allan says. “This is a great advantage, because it contributed to the staff not fighting the CRM. It worked like a system they already used.”
The system not only looks like the Microsoft Office Outlook® messaging and collaboration client but also customer data is accessible from within the e-mail system, so employees do not have to use multiple systems throughout the day. PAML employees now store all customer information in the central CRM customer database.
PAML licensed the software for every customer-facing employee in the organization to use—more than 900 employees in all. This includes not only the client services staff but employees in supply, billing, IT, logistics, dispatch, client retention, quality improvement, and lab testing. Now when customers call, employees anywhere in PAML can see a complete, up-to-date history of that customer’s contact with the company. For example, in speaking with a customer, a customer service representative might say, “I see you called with a billing question yesterday; did that get resolved?”
Employees can quickly link from the new CRM system to the lab information system to find answers about test results or order status. The two systems are connected in such a way that employees don’t even know that they have left the CRM system. PAML has plans to also link the CRM software to its Internet-based phones, so that the software can use the incoming phone number to identify the caller and pull up the customer’s record before the employee even answers the phone. PAML employees will be able to use this link to provide even more personalized service and save more time.
When employees can’t answer questions while the customer is on the phone, they can assign cases or tasks to colleagues from within the CRM system, attaching relevant documents for background. PAML uses the software to manage the workflow as customer issues wend their way to completion.
In fact, PAML has taken advantage of the built-in workflow capabilities of the software to manage other areas of its business workflow. PAML previously managed specimen pickup using paper logs. Now, when customers call with a pickup, a client service staff member logs the requests in the CRM system, which is linked to the logistics dispatch system. This allows service representatives to view progress on specimen pickup and transport for test requests. PAML also records quality problems in the software, allowing the quality improvement staff to better track issues for continuous improvement.
“As we began to see all that the CRM software could do, we realized that we could incorporate even more business processes into it, to automate our end-to-end workflow. It’s become the heartbeat of our organization,” Allan says.
Since implementing its customer relationship management system, PAML has achieved its goal of providing same-day responses to all customer inquiries. Management has access to a wide variety of customer service trend data, helping it continuously improve its quality processes and detect trends before they become problems. Employees enjoy the satisfaction of being more helpful to customers, rather than passing problems on to someone else. An unexpected benefit of the new solution is that PAML is able to extend its customer service capability to hospital labs that need help servicing their own customer needs.
Same-Day Customer Response
When customers call PAML today, they speak with employees who can either help them immediately or forward the problem to others who can help. The forwarded cases or tasks are managed in a structured way, with automated follow-up and resolution confirmation. “We’ve been able to provide our customers with same-day responses, reducing wait times that used to range up to three days,” Allan says. “When the competition is just a phone call away, this is a huge improvement in securing valuable customer relationships.”
Better Management Insight
Managers are further able to protect those relationships by monitoring the business with CRM reports. At a glance, they can see how many customer service cases are open, how many are closed, the average close rate, and many other service indicators. For example, by adding a field called “investigative results” to the CRM application, PAML management can analyze root causes of service failures and take steps to improve them.
“Being able to customize the software to our business needs in this way has been huge for us,” Allan says. “The addition of this one field has allowed us to eliminate our paper quality improvement form and multiple process steps. We can now easily and automatically track quality improvement trends by subject, volume, client, timeframe, and other metrics.”
PAML is even able to offer quality improvement insights to its customers. Each month, account representatives prepare reports detailing the top five causes for their customers’ calls to PAML—and for PAML calls to them. “We can tell them how many times we’ve been called by their staff for order clarification, misspellings, and other errors. Our clients love these reports; they use them to improve their own quality processes,” Allan says.
PAML has just licensed dashboard software from Microsoft that it can use to view CRM data in graphs and charts. Every morning, management will be able to see instantly how the company is performing against various service metrics such as response rates, failure points, lost specimens, and missed pickups. “Using executive dashboards, our leadership will have, at a glance, a better sense of where the business is every day, a better ability to detect dangerous trends, and an ability to respond faster,” Allan says.
New Revenue Opportunities
PAML now has such a finely honed customer service and logistical “engine” that it’s spinning off these services as part of a turnkey solution toolkit, called Outreach Advantage™. Many hospitals have multimillion-dollar labs but do not have the logistical systems or service support they need to enter the outreach testing business. PAML is providing these services for a fee. “Our CRM system has become the cornerstone of a whole suite of services that we can offer to these labs, opening up new opportunities for us,” Allan says. “It is a key component of the joint venture, community-based business strategy for which PAML is nationally recognized.”
PAML calculated that its CRM investment had a two-year payback, derived from increased customer retention, reduced customer service calls, and lower paper, printing, and storage costs.
Increased Employee Satisfaction
PAML employees enjoy a new sense of empowerment that comes with being better informed. “Employees love being out of the paper world, and they love sounding knowledgeable when customers call,” Allan says. “They have so much more information at their fingertips than they did before. With a couple of keystrokes, they can route a case to someone who can solve a customer issue, with the goal of getting an e-mail confirmation back when it’s solved. That provides a satisfying sense of resolution ownership.”
Judy Hays, Client Service Representative at PAML, describes the difference: “When customers call today, I can see the entire history of their previous calls. Our customers are impressed that we know so much. Before, we had really good records, but we couldn’t find them! They were in boxes beneath our desks. I can solve a problem in minutes, versus the hours that it took before.”
Karen Miller, Client Service/Resolution Center Manager at PAML, adds, “We’re more knowledgeable and efficient with our customers, which makes us look more competent. Because every customer contact is so well documented, anyone in the company can access it later, giving us great companywide customer awareness.”
Nora Snowden, Client Retention Manager for PACLAB Network Laboratories, a joint-venture partner of PAML, manages her company’s staff of account service representatives. She says that her staff consults the CRM system before every customer visit to determine if there have been problems with their accounts. “Nothing is more discouraging than starting a customer visit by being yelled at,” she says. “This would occasionally happen, because our account reps weren’t aware of conversations the customer had been having with various departments at headquarters. Now, they can be proactive in discovering problems and even prevent them in the first place.”
For example, one PAML account representative noticed from a CRM report that a customer was repeatedly complaining that PAML had missed tests. She was able to investigate and find out that the handwriting on the test form was too faint to be legible. The customer fixed the problem from their end. “Our business is built on relationships, and we’re now doing a better job of retaining business because we can often detect our customers’ needs before they can,” Snowden says.
PAML is currently deploying the sales force automation module of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, which the PAML sales staff will use to move leads through the closing process more successfully. The sales force is getting ready to use the contracts capability of the software to simplify and speed customer contract initiation and completion. And the marketing staff is deploying the marketing module to communicate new services to customers in innovative ways.
We’re excited to see what we can do next using this software,” Allan says. “Our people just get better and better with it and continue to think of new ways to increase efficiencies in our business.”
|Rosalee Allan, Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer at PAML|
Rosalee Allan is Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer of PAML, overseeing logistics, client services, processing, reporting, human resources, patient service centers, supply chain, administration, facilities, toxicology, and overall financial performance. She received her Bachelor’s degree in healthcare financial management from Whitworth College.
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