Hospital call center plays vital role in client communications

By Sarah Carey

Call Center agents review a schedule.

UF Small Animal Hospital call center supervisor Linda Howard reviews a schedule with a call center agent on July 22. (Photo by Sarah Carey)

In a quiet room tucked away behind the lobby in the UF Small Animal Hospital, a group of employees donning headsets in cubicles work to connect pet owners with the right veterinarian or clinical service, and veterinarians with the best specialist for their client’s needs.

Behind the scenes, these workers also function on the front lines of animal patient care at UF. They’re the first points of contact when people call the hospital, but the 10 employees who work in the hospital’s call center play a variety of roles that cross categories. They field some 2,000 calls a week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., serving as patient care facilitators and appointment schedulers but also acting as crisis managers and consolers to callers — as well as amongst each other at times.

One worker said the scariest calls for her were any emergencies in which the owner is on his or her way to the hospital but it is clear the pet will not survive the trip.

“I have had several emergency calls where the pet died while the client was on the phone with me,” that agent said. “I usually have to take a break and collect myself after this.”

Another agent recalled a situation where an owner was on her way to the hospital with a dog that was vomiting and having trouble breathing. The caller took a wrong turn and needed step-by-step directions to the hospital. At one point the owner became hysterical on the phone, the agent said.

“In a very relaxed, soft tone, I told her to take some deep breaths,” she said, adding that she told the caller it would help her pet if she could try to relax, as pets pick up on their owner’s energy.

“I heard her take a couple of breaths. Then she said, ‘you are so right, thank you for that,’” the agent remembered. “She was able to gather herself for her pet, and to drive the rest of the way to Gainesville.”

Ever-mindful of the stress her employees go through, call center supervisor Linda Howard takes the well-being of her staff extremely seriously.

“I encourage anyone who has taken a difficult call to get off the phones and take a break,” Howard said. “It’s very important for me as a manager that my employees have the self awareness that they are ready to take that next call. If they’re not, I’d rather them not take the call. My team is not a bunch of robots and I’m very tuned in to talking to them about these things.”

Howard says it takes months to train new team members due to the “incredible amount of information” staff are expected to know for 14 different hospital services.

While many calls fielded by the center are difficult, agents report that positive calls frequently offset the emotional difficulty experienced with the tougher ones. For example, many clients call back to say “thank you” after their pets have been seen, and often connections are formed between staff members and clients who contact them.

“Often clients will come in and ask to see us,” one agent said. “If we are able to leave the busy phones, we do go to meet clients at the front desk and are often met with hugs from callers we have never met before. It says a lot for the connection we made over a call.”

Like many other caregivers — hospital clinicians and students included — call center workers deal with compassion fatigue. Collectively, several workers recently shared that while their jobs are physically and emotionally exhausting during the day, their work is still rewarding.

“We love our doctors, staff and students and we love being part of an incredible team,” one agent said.

Sheri Holloway, associate director of the UF Small Animal Hospital, reiterated the importance of the team to the overall operation.

“The call center is such an important part of the team and the client experience, but its role is often underappreciated,” Holloway said. “Call center agents have to deal with a wide range of personalities, which can be difficult and stressful. The agents work hard to develop a good rapport with the clients and to make them feel that someone is listening and addressing their concerns. They are a big part of the reason that people entrust us to take care of their pets.”

 

 

 

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July-August 2016

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