6 must-haves for effective customer support in health IT

By Michelle McNickle
01:01 PM

There's no denying that customer service is a key driver of success in any business. And when it comes to health IT, strong customer support is that much more important to successfully implement tools aimed at improving patient care and reducing costs.

Sonal Patel, vice president of client services at Corepoint Health and Cathy Wickern, system analyst at Washington-based Highline Medical Center, outline six must-haves for effective customer support in health IT.

1. A knowledgeable support team. Although it may seem like common sense said Patel, a product support team that's knowledgeable about its offerings is a must for healthcare IT application vendors. "A knowledgeable staff member [must] also understand the company's internal processes and the healthcare industry," she said. "These requirements apply to the front line, as well as throughout the entire technical, escalation team. Patel noted that today's health IT standards are complex and have both terms and processes not found in IT jobs outside of healthcare. "In today's competitive market with a large number of available jobs, finding qualified candidates is difficult, to say the least, especially for the skill-sets needed," she said. As a result, training for new recruits is key and should range from product training to soft skills training, and from training in the classroom to one-on-one with mentors. "This investment [should be] taken most seriously to ensure service excellence that goes beyond support."

2. Responsiveness. It's key to respond quickly to concerns, said Patel, and to overstaff the support team so customers always have access to a knowledgeable person. "After the initial response to the request, the support team should stay in regular contact with the client until the problem is resolved to the customer's satisfaction, without exception," she said. "Empower your team to take complete ownership of the situation, to the point of resolution." Patel added prior to purchasing an enterprise-level application, she suggests using a vendor's support services, calling existing customers, and reading customer feedback provided in reports, such as in KLAS research. "KLAS is a good source of unbiased customer feedback on all healthcare technology vendors."

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3. The ability to listen and understand. To understand the profession, the market, and customers, health IT vendors need to "walk in the customers' shoes," said Patel, and look at any situation from their perspective. "Take the time to listen to their feedback because the customers are the ones using the products and services," she said. Smart vendors, she added, regularly gain insight from customers, which they can use to improve services and products in the form of upgrades of enhancements. "A vendor's user community should be a good source of 'how to' information and can include client forums, product best practices, regular education sessions taught by product instructors, information on future product updates, and an easy way to get in touch with a company representative for more information," she added. 

4. Being an extension of the IT team. According to Wickern, customer support needs to be an extension of the IT team, since "there are times when I need to know how to perform actions that are specific to that particular product," she said. "Good customer support makes me feel like I'm more than just one person working on a project – it should be like another layer of IT support for me, while I work as IT support for our staff." Good customer support, she added, should be available at the beginning of every project, "to help me not waste so much time and repeat work."

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5. Helping during emergencies. As an IT professional, Wickern said, she's had many emergencies, and speaking to someone within 15 to 30 minutes is considered a reasonable amount of time. "Knowing that someone is going to record the information about the problem correctly, and be able to troubleshoot and fix what happened as quickly as possible, offers reassurance." She referenced an example of bad customer service, when inbound orders from an application switched to "routine" as opposed to "STAT," as intended. "The problem had been identified in testing and a support ticket was opened," she said. "By the time their customer support got around to fixing the problem more than six weeks later, the message had been deleted, so they couldn't fix or diagnose the problem." The lesson here? Vendor representatives should know solutions to problems, particularly during emergencies. "And if a particular representative doesn't know the immediate answer, they should have quick access to someone who knows how to help," Wickern said.

6. Offering peace of mind during major projects. "Knowing that the vendor is available to help with design considerations is very important, especially if it's something relatively new to me," said Wickern. Additionally, she said, the vendor's implementation and project team should understand the full scope of the project in advance, including what's previously worked so key aspects of the system can be maintained. "The best vendors evaluate our process in advance, show us how their systems work, then they brainstorm with our team how the new system will work alongside our current system," she said. "Good customer service isn't just listening; it's also offering suggestions and expertise on how to use the new system."