Customer service exercises add spice to staff meetings

Bored faces disappear and attendance goes up

When the patient access department at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center-Presbyterian in Philadelphia has its monthly staff meeting these days, there’s an added attraction. After the insurance updates, schedule changes, and other pertinent matters are handled, attendees are asked to participate in an interactive customer service initiative, says Raina Harrell, business administrator for patient access.

Taking an exercise she used in a previous access position, Harrell explains, she has challenged members of Presbyterian’s nine-person patient access management team to take turns coming up with an activity to cap off the monthly sessions. "It actually helps get people involved in the staff meetings, which some consider to be boring," Harrell says. "There is a game or activity, and [employees] may get picked or volunteer, or might get a prize, for being there."

"[Staff reaction] has been extremely positive," she adds. "When the activity comes, there are smiles and laughter, and we might get a question or two after that, as people become more relaxed."

Activity highlights personal strengths

Harrell started off the monthly exercises in April, with an activity that highlighted the special strength or personality trait that each person contributes to the patient access team. "On colorful strips of paper, people wrote their name on one side, and on the other, the quality they bring to the team," she explains. As each person completed a strip, she adds, it was made into a loop and then, with a stapler, connected with the next person’s "link" to make a chain.

"We had people who were customer-focused, friendly, detail-oriented," among other traits, Harrell says. "We talked about how each person added to the team. We took it so far as to say that, for example, on a not so good day, [the department trainer] didn’t feel like teaching, so her link fell apart."

The exercise continued with co-workers helping her get through the tough time by repairing her link, she notes. "We all have good days and bad days, and we’re expected to keep up whatever the day brings. So we need to help mend each other’ to keep that link together."

That was a good beginning activity, Harrell points out, because it "got everyone involved the first time. Everyone had to speak."

As a reminder of the teamwork message, the chain that was created was circulated among the different patient access areas, with each keeping it for a few days or a week, she says.

In May, the department’s manager of medical records used the food group pyramid as a symbol for the healthy whole that is created by the contribution that each area of patient access makes to the department, Harrell says. (See chart.) "Admissions, where we register and assign beds, was like the meat group," she adds. "Central registration was like the dairy group. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to register outpatients or direct patients to services."

"Sometimes one area feels like it is more important than another, but [the exercise] emphasized that all are important to the whole," Harrell says.

Exercise promotes teamwork

Employees got to try out some dance steps for the June activity, which was directed by Shelly Potts, the manager of quality assurance and training. To represent the nuances of teamwork and training, Potts put together a series of dance steps for staff members to learn, she explains. In the scenario that was played out, she called someone to the front of the room to take the role of a newly hired employee.

In the same way that new employees are given manuals that explain their jobs, Potts says, she handed the person a written description of the dance steps. "Staff would also be given hands-on training, so we turned on the music and I showed her how to do the steps, and then said, Let me see you do it.’ She was confused at first, but we did it over and over again until she got it."

Other parts of the exercise brought others to the front to learn from the first person, illustrating how the mentoring process works, and reminding those watching what it is like to be a new employee faced with absorbing a great deal of information, she notes.

To demonstrate the ongoing insurance updates and other new material that is presented long after her training class is over, Potts says, she introduced a double clap to the dance routine. By that time, there were several people involved, all looking at each other to make sure they were doing it right, she adds.

The point was made, Harrell notes, that it’s natural for someone to make mistakes in the early stages of training, and that with practice and reinforcement, the person eventually retains the information. "By the end of the exercise, [the dancers] were in sync, dancing together and having a great time," she says. "There was someone from each area of access on the dance floor and everyone was smiling. There are usually such bored faces at the staff meetings."

Although the exercises might appear to be more about team building than customer service, Potts explains that the latter term fits because of the philosophy that defines the institution’s access services department. "Our theme is "Customer-Focused, Revenue-Driven," she adds, "and our customers are not just patients who come to the department. We are all each other’s customers. The idea is, Treat others as you want to be treated.’"

Creating a theme

With the monthly exercises, Harrell continues, "what we’re trying to do is build a theme of teamwork, showing little by little how each person and each department contributes to the team. We’re trying to increase attendance at the staff meetings as well."

While typically about half the staff, if that many, attend the monthly meetings, she notes, there was a dramatic increase after word of the new format got out. At the next session, about 77% of the 80 people who might have attended were present, Harrell adds, and the number was up to 85% the next time. "Attendance is getting higher and higher because people are talking about our staff meetings," she says. It doesn’t hurt that the manager who is conducting the exercise that month also is providing refreshments, Harrell adds.

The more employees who attend the meeting, she points out, the less redo is necessary on staff inservices and other new information that is disseminated. "The more fun you can make any part of work, the better off you’re going to be," she says. "The more you can get them to smile, the more the staff appreciates it."

Another positive, adds Potts, is the interactive nature of the exercises. "It’s not just [managers] getting up there talking. Employees appreciate it more when they can [contribute] something."

[Editor’s note: Raina Harrell can be reached at (215) 662-9295 or by e-mail at raina.harrell@uphs.upenn.edu, and Shelly Potts can be reached at (215) 662-9298 or lachell.potts@uphs.upenn.edu.]