When Lolita M. Tyree, MSW, CHAM, asks, “Can you tell me about a time you dealt with a difficult customer,” she hopes to hear some great anecdotal stories that reveal a patient access candidate’s excellent customer service skills. Occasionally, she finds out the complete opposite is true.

One applicant couldn’t stop yawning as she struggled to answer the question. Her body language — full of shrugs and slouches — sent a message that she couldn’t care less about the customers she’d interacted with. Others have blatantly rolled their eyes to show just how frustrated they’d gotten with a particularly annoying customer.

“I look for those things that are unsaid. I also listen for the words they use to describe their customers,” says Tyree, patient access manager for the ED at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, VA.

Body Language Counts

Some applicants get visibly tense talking about previous customers they’ve served. That’s not encouraging. “When they are searching for anything in the room to look at other than me, that’s a sign they are not comfortable at all with what they are sharing,” Tyree notes.

One candidate played with the hem of her pants while trying to explain how she had helped a customer with a coupon issue. “I could not tell if she were looking for the answers in her pant leg, or just grasping at any scenario to give as an explanation,” Tyree recalls.

On the other hand, another applicant described in detail how she was cursed out at her previous job at a call center by a customer. The problem was that a package — a family heirloom — had not arrived. “She went to the lost items room herself outside of her normal work hours and found the package, which had been misrouted, for the customer,” Tyree says.

Another applicant spoke about a time she calmed down a patient who was so over a physician’s bedside manner that she wanted to leave without completing her treatment.

“She realized there was a big miscommunication, and saved the relationship between the patient and physician,” Tyree reports. Sometimes, applicants’ work experiences outside patient access or even healthcare. Yet, they convey the kind of customer service that’s very applicable to the registrar role.

One was a veteran whose previous job was transitioning military personnel to civilian life.

“One in particular gave them a really hard time, declaring they didn’t know how it felt to not have any idea what to do after being in one career for so long,” Tyree says. The candidate didn’t take it personally. Instead, he put the service member in touch with a support group and a vocational counselor.

“The best responses are those that show the candidate went above and beyond the expectation to help the customer,” Tyree offers. The worst response to a “difficult customer” story: “I just got my manager.”

“That usually shows that they either can’t, or won’t, try to resolve issues independently,” Tyree notes.


  • Lolita M. Tyree, MSW, CHAM, Patient Access, Riverside Regional Medical Center, Newport News, VA. Phone: (757) 612-8142. Email: Lolita.Tyree@rivhs.com.