Calling All Volunteer Directors and Managers

I had an experience the other day that made me re-think the importance of customer service as it relates to volunteer programs at healthcare organizations. The fact of the matter is this: many volunteer programs don’t teach the skills necessary to allow volunteers to competently interact with the customer at the point-of-service. Healthcare likely presents one of the most common human-to-human interactions in the daily world. Something as common in healthcare as volunteering demands an intensive, customer-centric approach to training, one similar to those used when training employees. Yet, not all organizations do this. Last week it became clear to me (a phrase that attorneys shouldn’t use lightly) that all volunteers don’t approach the customer equally. Volunteers vary their methods of interacting with customers, person-to-person. Last week while volunteering at a prominent regional organization I witnessed a notable defect in volunteer customer service. Essentially, a failed teaching opportunity; a defect resulting from a broken process.

Quote Time:

“It is estimated that sixteen to fifty-five percent of all Americans between the ages of eighteen and sixty-four are volunteering their time. (Zweigenhaft, Armstrong, Quintis & Riddick, 1996). I’m sure that that number has fluctuated a bit over the past near-twenty years. Maybe not. No matter though, “healthcare organizations are still big players in the volunteer ‘business’.” (Shannon, 2013. … A historically-charitable institution must be a big player, right?). Of note, volunteering has motivating factors. Some are social, others personal, others business/networking related. Healthcare volunteers are commonly known to weigh all three factors into their decision to volunteer. (Zweigenhaft, Armstrong, Quintis & Riddick, 1996). (I wonder if this makes volunteers in healthcare organizations more receptive to understanding healthcare processes?)

Returning to my story:

So, I’m volunteering at the front desk. My shift begins. Gentleman comes up to the desk, motions with his right hand to the area from which he came, and turning his head in my direction says to me, “I want to make sure that I’m in the right place. The [volunteer] before [your shift] said I have to wait here. I have a billing issue. [The hospital] billed me for this amount; I don’t think that’s right. After subtracting my insurance coverage from the total cost of hospital services, the resulting amount doesn’t add-up. Basically, it appears the hospital over-billed me for services and I’d like to talk to your billing office, which I hope hasn’t closed yet. I’ve been here for nearly an hour.”

As you could imagine, the guy wasn’t too happy. Here are some other, less-interesting details:

• It was my first day.

• Prior to this, I had relatively no training for the position.

• The program did not standardize training, and a college-aged, “seasoned” volunteer conducted the training session for my newly-minted volunteer group.

• My scheduled shift is in the early evening, beginning near close-of-business when people want to return home for the day. (Factor that in with people’s general aversion to hospital settings.)

Proposed Rule:

Volunteers must know how to manage customers. It’s honestly that simple. Here’s a financial way to think about it: the opportunity cost for me to volunteer was about $100, a quarter of which went to pay for a volunteer uniform; a polo valued at $25 (yea, right). People of my wherewithal don’t just go spending $100 willy nilly. Volunteers volunteer for a reason. They give their physical and emotional sweat to attend to people in need. Volunteer responsibilities may be minimal, but there’s not much to remember. And it’s the healthcare organization’s job to teach volunteers what to remember. They shouldn’t expect volunteers to produce high-performing outcomes without proper instruction. Capisce? Moreover, Volunteer programs should be self-sustaining. They should engender communication, honesty and empathy in practice. They should be the most consistently value-added service an organization provides to its customers. On the other side of the coin, they should not exist to harm your organization’s goodwill. There’s absolutely no reasonable basis for that outcome.

From an application standpoint, it’s entirely proper to tell volunteers how to think and act when representing the hospital. In fact, volunteers must be told how to think and act. From the customer’s perspective, it makes little sense forcing customers to engage with ignorant minds. That would frustrate anyone. Ultimately, some people just want to be listened to. While heard, the customer in my story wasn’t listened to. If I was told to sit somewhere and did, trusting the agent of the organization who instructed me, and then found out I was given wrong information and wasted more than an hour of my day sitting needlessly, I would be upset! This is empathy. Volunteers at healthcare organizations need to capture what empathy feels like and they need to capture it regularly.