Gauge your next access candidate's service skills

Actions speak louder than words

Does an individual have flawless references and impressive skills? That doesn't matter much if his or her service skills are lacking.

"With the changes in patient access, having the skill set for the job is just a piece of what we are looking for now," says Pam Carlisle, CHAM, corporate director of patient access services and revenue cycle administration at Columbus-based Ohio Health. "During the interview, our directors are analyzing how the candidate deals with conflict, critical situations, and how they think, by giving them pointed scenarios to test their critical thinking skills."

Carlisle says that her department offers testing during the interview to see how a candidate might formulate a presentation, analyze a chart, or deal with a role-playing scenario.

Applicants are asked questions about how they have handled conflict management, how they have dealt with different personalities in their current work environment, and how they deal with life in general.

"Talking about other things than just a skill set has become a priority," says Carlisle. Because the front line is the first point of contact, they have to be friendly, with a good personality, multi-task oriented, and have an overall positive attitude in the line of fire. We search for customer service skills."

Considerations include the candidates' tone of voice, their ability to communicate clearly, and whether they smile when meeting others, including the receptionist and the panel of interviewees.

"Many times, you can tell the minute a person walks into the room if they have that positive, outgoing style," says Carlisle. "The single attribute we look for is enthusiasm and a positive nature. We can teach and develop individuals with the will to learn. But one of the worst mistakes we can make when hiring the front line is focusing strictly on past experience and skill set."

Instead, look outside the box and evaluate the thought process of your candidate. "On the front line, they have to be able to analyze situations, make quick and accurate decisions, and be a forward thinker," says Carlisle. "We challenge those attributes during the interview to really get to know the personality and nature of the candidate."

Do behavioral interviews

According to Grand Rapids, MI-based Spectrum Health's talent acquisition specialist Angela Groom, behavioral-based interviewing is the best way to gauge an applicant's ability to effectively handle customer service situations. "The ability to relate well to others is largely an intangible characteristic," says Groom. "Recruiters have found that asking situational questions allows the applicant to demonstrate their line of thinking."

Behavioral interviews include questions such as, "Tell me about a time when you exceeded your customer's expectations," or "Describe a difficult customer service situation and how you handled it." The goal is to assess from the applicant's answers if he or she relates to the customers and genuinely seeks to exceed their expectations.

Carole Helmandollar, executive director of ambulatory services at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC, says that she asks these behavior-based interview questions:

• What types of customer service experiences have you had?

• How do you define excellent customer service? What does excellent customer service mean to you? "Look for whether they focus on the people or the process in their response," says Helmandollar.

• What was your last experience at a doctor's office? How did they make you feel? Did they keep you informed about delays?

• When was the last time you handled a difficult customer service interaction, and how did you resolve it?

"The answers we get then drive the follow-up questions," says Helmandollar. "We also look for basics, like eye contact and body language, that indicates that the candidate would try to make the patient feel comfortable rather than defensive."

Helmandollar says that she had lunch with a new hire recently who stopped after they were done eating to pick up some trash off the floor. "I thought about what a wonderful sign that was. Maybe I need to strategically place trash somewhere between my office and receptionist desk to see if candidates will stop to pick it up," she says.

Team up with HR

At Children's National Medical Center, the human relations department does a pre-screening of candidates before the interview process can begin with the patient access managers. "This tries to get at the candidate's perceptions about what gaining customer loyalty means, and how they can affect it by their behaviors," says Helmandollar.

Since Spectrum Health's managers and recruiters possess different strengths, the two have sometimes teamed up to conduct certain interviews in some areas, including patient access. "The applicant may answer in a certain way, so that the manager and recruiter detect specific tendencies," says Groom.

To be successful in patient access, employees need to possess the ability to relate to customers' situations. "Applicants working in a customer-centered atmosphere need to possess a good problem-solving mentality, a willingness to go the extra mile in helping people, and be able to remain calm in difficult situations," says Groom. "The willingness to solve the problem and not pass the buck is also paramount."

Jen Nichols, Spectrum Health's director of patient access, notes that the role of the patient access professional has changed significantly over the past several years, as more functions have been advanced in the revenue cycle and added to the workflow. Processes and activities formerly completed by the "back office" are now handled by access.

"Entirely new competencies, such as cost estimation, have emerged in our industry," says Nichols. "Correspondingly, the expectations of corresponding skills required of a patient access professional have dramatically increased."

Historically, some organizations may have hired someone primarily for customer service skills, with moderate computer or data entry requirements. "Today, we seek a sophisticated professional that demonstrates advanced customer service but is also highly skilled in technology, capable of managing multiple electronic tools and systems, able to conduct financial conversations and collections, deeply knowledgeable in a variety of payer plans and requirements, and able to perform a range of other duties that are part of access," says Nichols.

For this reason, involving the patient access professional in the interviewing process makes sense, preferably someone from the team in which there is an opening. "They are close to the everyday workflow and are often able to provide unique perspectives to the hiring manager," says Nichols. "The staff members are also able to assist the hiring manager in evaluating team needs. In addition, they offer a peer perspective of a candidate's team fit."

Spectrum Health's HR team recruits and assesses applicants for organizational fit and alignment, with a strong partnership between the hiring manager and HR "These processes, if done effectively, can be very helpful to the hiring manager in terms of screening and qualifying applicants," says Nichols. "An upfront investment of time in establishing position requirements, a discussion of organizational needs, and success criteria allows HR to confidently and accurately act on behalf of the hiring manager."

[For more information, contact:

Pam Carlisle, CHAM, Corporate Director, Patient Access Services and Revenue Cycle Administration, Ohio Health, Columbus, OH. Phone: (614) 544-6099. E-mail:

Carole Helmandollar, Executive Director, Ambulatory Services, Children's National Medical Center, 111 Michigan Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20010. Phone: (301) 572-3656. Fax: (301) 765-5650. E-mail:

Jen Nichols, Director, Patient Access, Spectrum Health, Grand Rapids, MI. Phone: (616) 391-5477. E-mail:]