Spire Healthcare increase appointments through careful conversations

Private hospitals play an important part in the availability of treatment in the UK: from major medical procedures referred by General Practitioners in the National Health Service, to self-elective surgery for cosmetic improvements. There are 38 hospitals in the Spire Healthcare group, all striving to be centres of clinical excellence and with unshakeable caring values, they also comprise a commercial business in a competitive market.

At the Spire Leicester Hospital, in England’s East Midlands, the need to draw all these strands together – patient service, care and increasing revenue – led to a strategic review in 2012 of whether the very first contact the patient has with the hospital was as good as it could possibly be.

In improving its share of the self-pay market (which includes non-urgent but clinically necessary procedures such as joint replacements, cataracts or hernias and weight loss interventions) three considerations were uppermost. First, many enquiries would come from people who were anxious and unsure about the medical journey they might be about to undertake. Secondly, not everyone answering the incoming telephone call was necessarily an experienced call handler, especially outside normal office hours. Finally, anyone who made a call to Spire Leicester Hospital and didn’t get a satisfactory response had alternatives: another local private hospital; treatment on the NHS; or avoiding the procedure altogether.

Management needed to be sure that calls were always handled in a way that recognised these considerations. Was business being lost simply because enquirers didn’t feel the hospital wanted to help them enough, or that they wouldn’t have their call returned by a specialist promptly and with sufficient empathy? Did the call-taker always communicate the right degree of knowledge and personal attention? A more rigorous mystery caller exercise put some statistical meat on those anecdotal bones, and did indeed identify problems. The Business Development team, led by Clare Cunningham-Hill, committed itself to bring about improvement.

Hospital Director, Douglas Pattisson, was already familiar with Huthwaite International, having attended a SPIN® programme. But when the management discussed solutions with Huthwaite’s Guy Aston, they all agreed that a different Huthwaite programme, aimed at people whose role is to convert enquiries to appointments, and who might well not have a sales role in the traditional sense, was more appropriate. This was to be based around the PITCH* questioning model, and would help to establish the necessary commonality of language between full-time Patient Treatment Advisers, nursing or allied health professionals, and administrative staff – any of whom could find themselves answering an incoming call from a patient or prospective patient. The underlying aim was to be more approachable, allowing the call handler to engage in a helpful conversation in which both parties would cover the ground necessary to move the enquiry to the point where the defined objective was met, for example: “Conversion to Appointment.”

*PITCH stands for Presenting, Investigating, Tempting, Commitment, Handing-over, and is the research-based questioning model that Huthwaite developed to help people whose contact with customers occurs in a relatively short cycle, and where a final buying decision is not necessarily the objective of every call.

As with any endeavour, planning and preparation would be keys to the success of any intervention by Huthwaite. “We looked at everything involved in getting to the outcome we wanted to achieve,” Clare remembers. “The phone system itself, the internal process for managing enquiries, and above all, the right skill set to achieve a satisfactory call. We found the Huthwaite Outcome Matrix especially useful in helping us to define what good and outstanding results would look like, call-by-call; from there we were able to work together to design some very focused and realistic caller role-plays for use in the training events.”

These scenarios arose from a workshop led by Huthwaite and involved a detailed deconstruction of exactly what happens when a prospective patient telephones to explain that they don’t want their father to have to wait in discomfort for two years to get the chronic pain in his hip sorted out; or to explore their general feeling that they’d like to do something about their weight problems. At that point, the need is no more than an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo; it hasn’t yet formed into a fixed plan of action, still less a decision to book a procedure. The job of the call taker at this point is to investigate more closely, explore which options might be most suitable, maybe discuss price, and make certain that the caller feels that they will be dealt with by efficient and caring professionals who will put their needs first. And if the call-taker isn’t the right person to do that, to let the caller know, at the very least, that their enquiry is valuable and will get a quick and sympathetic response as soon as possible. “It all sounds quite obvious”, admits Clare, “but the evidence we gathered showed that it wasn’t happening consistently which is why we sought outside help.”

Douglas Pattisson adds: “From the point of view of corporate development, this is all extremely important. Spire Leicester Hospital has unquestionable differentiators such as the excellence of our nursing care, our stateof- the art operating and diagnostic facilities, and our commitment to delivering clinical excellence and the highest quality patient care. Everyone, from Patient Treatment Advisers and out-patient booking staff to nursing and allied health professionals, needs to understand how an awareness of these differentiators could assist in a caller’s inclination to take the next step and make an appointment.”

Inevitably, not everyone was totally relaxed about the prospect of undertaking training – particularly role-plays – in an environment where colleagues, including senior management, would be participating. Huthwaite account manager Guy Aston was instrumental in overcoming apprehensiveness and scepticism by constructing a series of interventions in which the groupings were sympathetically organised; and trainer Peter Watts conducted the sessions in a typically unthreatening setting, with nobody having to perform any role-plays in front of an audience of anyone but the trainer himself.

There is no doubt that after the training events, the delegates all felt far better equipped to handle incoming calls with confidence, and with a new found ability to achieve the agreed ideal outcomes. The evidence is unmistakable, from a number of angles. A couple of months after the training finished (and with help from PITCH coaches among the Spire Leicester Hospital staff who Huthwaite trained especially for the purpose), the proportion of conversions to appointment for self pay patients rose. The statistics are backed up in the posttraining impact survey where delegates attest to improvements in selling skill, ease of application of the PITCH model, and improvement in their own business results. One specific example, drawn from the survey, sums up the experience, where a call came into a ward on a Sunday, a nurse initiated a conversation that created insight into the problem, which was seen through to a call back from the hospital on Monday morning, and immediately became a booking.

The last word perhaps belongs to Jo Willars, an experienced Patient Treatment Adviser, who still felt she learnt useful lessons. “Just because people’s problems may sound familiar to us”, she observes, “to them they are unique and they deserve to be listened to properly, as individuals, and then have us offer them a solution that they are happy with. Huthwaite has certainly helped us all to remember that.”