Sunday, April 27, 2014
During the years when I supervised Penn State Dickinson's Elder Protection Clinic, I was often struck by how much time our law students spent tracking down basic information on behalf of clients, such as credit card or mortgage histories, Social Security records, or insurance coverage details. The information was, in theory, equally available to the clients themselves, but often our clients, who tended to be on the older side of "aging," simply didn't have the energy, patience or skills needed to navigate the dense, automated systems typically associated with modern record-keeping and billing. One of our student-lawyers made the apt observation that if you weren't "old" before you called some of the customer service "help" lines, you would be by the time you got an answer.
I was reminded of this recently while attempting to make a hotel reservation by telephone. In my first attempt, I didn't have enough time to wait, so after 10 minutes of less-than-interesting music, I gave up. The second time, a day later, I was routed through a series of automated messages, apparently intended to entice me into becoming an "honors" guest of the hotel's larger chain. I was using a cell phone, so each time the automated voice indicated a series of choices available, I had to take the phone away from my ear and look for the button in question. I listened to four sets of automated instructions, even though each time my goal was the same, pressing whatever button I was told to press "if" I wanted to book a reservation. Gee, are there that many other reasons why someone calls a hotel reservation number? It took several minutes before I reached a live person, who with a very bored tone insisted I give several items of personal information before I was allowed to ask whether there was a room available for my specific date. You could tell she was reading from a script. By this point I had become distinctly grumpy about the lack of hospitality in this so-called hospitality venue.
As you have probably already guessed, there was "no room at the inn" for that date. I asked to speak to a supervisor, not so much because I thought I could change the outcome, but because I wanted to register my feeble complaint about frustration with their system. That took another 10 minutes with more "music." But I was determined not to give up.
Amusingly, once I finally reached a "supervisor," the individual immediately agreed with my comments about the weakness of their automated system. That did a lot to dispel my annoyance. And then -- shock -- she actually offered to solve the problem by calling the local hotel (which as it turns out I was not speaking with). She found me an available room to book for the night in question. The encounter with the real human wasn't particularly fast, but I was content to wait, knowing a caring individual was trying to help.
This micro-experience, a minor annoyance, nonetheless gave me reason to think about two things: (1) how much more difficult automation could be for someone who has a hearing problem, slowed reflexes, impaired vision, or diminished cognitive abilities, and (2) how often I'm positively impressed during my communications with well-run long-term care facilities.
When I telephone my father's assisted living community, for example, a live person answers the phone and often recognizes my name and my father's name. My whole family notices how well the staff members know their residents and remember helpful details about the residents' families. It isn't a fancy place, but the staff outshines most high-end resorts with their professionalism and good-natured hospitality. And it is contagious, as I often see my father smiling in response to the staff members' kind words.
Also, when I visit CCRCs across the country for work-related reasons, I'm impressed by the very personal relationships I witness between residents and front-office management. Admittedly, CCRCs are often at the upper end of the long-term care "pay" spectrum, but my impression over the years that I've been visiting such multi-level care facilities, including their skilled care units, is that management and staff at the most successful operations place a high value on human contact with residents and the public. The best ones seem to embrace the notion that a hospitable, caring demeanor during direct interactions goes a long way to lowering the potential for confusion or angry disputes and thus increases the likelihood that someone will be a "client" and recommend new clients.
So, is it possible that the long-term care industry, often portrayed negatively in the media, has something important to teach other segments of industry about why automation is not the best, nor even the most cost effective, solution to customer relations, and why the personal touch still makes a difference?