A congressional hearing last month offered a disturbing picture of the service Medicare clients are receiving from a hotline set up to answer their questions and provide information.
One of the six call centers that handles those calls is operated by Vangent Inc., which is in Lawrence's East Hills Business Park. The local call center wasn't criticized directly and it could well be the best call center in the nation, but the information shared in the recent hearing still should be a vivid reminder to all employees who handle such calls of how important every call they answer is to the person who is making it.
To test the Medicare hotline, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon had his staff make 500 test calls to 1-800-Medicare. The calls, he said, resulted in hourlong waits, disconnected calls, endless loops of referrals and call transfers and erroneous information about benefits and services.
Everyone who has ever negotiated an automated phone system shares the Medicare callers' pain. If callers are able to follow the instructions, punch in the right numbers and stay on hold long enough, eventually they can reach a live person whose job it is to answer their questions. Unfortunately, even when the Medicare clients got to the right person, they sometimes got the wrong information.
In fairness, the senator's callers apparently were a special challenge because they didn't have Medicare identification numbers and were asking multiple questions. And, to their credit, representatives of Vangent told the Journal-World that they and the other call centers are constantly training their personnel and seeking ways to provide better service.
Hopefully, part of that training asks employees to put themselves in the shoes of an elderly person who may be sick, confused, frustrated or all of the above. Providing courteous service and correct information to that caller may sometimes literally be a life or death matter. Even if the call is about a relatively minor issue, it almost always is an opportunity to deliver some compassion and support to a caller who needs help.
Modern call centers may be an efficient way to handle questions, but, in too many cases, they pretty much eliminate the personal touch normally associated with good customer service. Especially when those questions involve medical matters, it's important not only to be polite but also to get it right.