AAMI News November 2019

Career Center: Soft Skills Deliver on 'Our Promise' for Better Customer Service

Nadia Ayoubzadeh
Nadia Ayoubzadeh

As the director of information services (IS) and clinical engineering services at Allina Health System in Minneapolis, MN, Nadia Ayoubzadeh noticed that IS and clinical engineering services were becoming increasingly critical to healthcare delivery. In 2016, Ayoubzadeh led the launch of a new customer service training program that focuses on developing soft skills—i.e., people skills or professional skills—for IS and clinical engineering employees.

“Historically, our industry has been known to work in the basement with minimal interactions,” she said. “Now, however, we are more visible as technology takes an increasingly prominent role in the healthcare environment. This requires a more refined set of soft skills and the ability to interact effectively at all levels of the organization and with external partners.”

To set up Allina’s IS and clinical engineering employees for success, Ayoubzadeh pitched the idea of a customer service training program to the chief information officer (CIO). In her case for the program, Ayoubzadeh said the department could not expect its employees to deliver exceptional customer service without first defining the concept, and that this would require creating a culture and shared language around excellent customer service.

With the CIO’s support, Ayoubzadeh recruited a few of her colleagues to design and deliver a customer service training program for Allina’s IS and clinical engineering employees.

“Our people are technical in nature,” she said, “so we made sure to incorporate scientific research that explained the social science behind how we interact with others and the value soft skills add to these interactions.”

In the first year of the new program, called Our Promise, more than 850 employees from IS and clinical engineering completed the two-hour foundations course. The foundation course breaks down each step of a customer interaction and defines the soft skills and tools employees need in order to provide a great service:

  • Positive greeting. A genuine greeting makes the customer feel welcome and sets the tone for current and future interactions.
  • Respectful listening. Pay attention to the words the customer is saying and try to understand the complete message.
  • Obtain clarity. Confirm with the customer that you understand their issues and needs.
  • Manage expectations. Make sure the customer understands how and when you will address their issues and needs.
  • Initiate collaboration. If you cannot resolve the customer’s issues and needs, reach out to others who can help.
  • Solution driven. Stay focused on providing solutions that are integrated with the organization’s mission and values.
  • Express gratitude. Close your interaction with sincere thanks.

The foundations program comes with a 30-page resource guide that includes additional information about these steps, as well as lessons in understanding body posture and facial expressions, tips for active listening, email etiquette, apologizing gracefully, and recovering from a breakdown in customer service.

In the second year of the program, the Our Promise team developed manager toolkits to facilitate customer service discussions during staff meetings and released a video series, Our Promise in Action, that highlights examples of exceptional customer service at Allina. They also hosted deep-dive sessions on key topics like managing upset customers and collaboration, with a deep dive on gratitude planned for November to coincide with Thanksgiving.

“We will talk about how gratitude fits into the customer service experience and how it can be good for our physical, psychological, and social health,” said Ayoubzadeh. “These activities help keep soft skills at the forefront of employees’ minds and sustain Allina’s culture of excellent customer service.”

Since its inception in 2016, the Our Promise program has become one of the IS and clinical engineering leadership team’s key strategies for enhancing the customer experience. Ayoubzadeh said she hopes the program will eventually permeate into the DNA of the culture as the department strives to deliver on its vision of world-class service with every interaction, and to maybe one day serve as a template for other healthcare organizations that want to give their non-clinical employees the soft skills they need to provide excellent customer service.

To read more about soft skills training for healthcare technology management professionals, go to the soft skills feature in the November/December issue of AAMI’s peer-reviewed journal, BI&T (Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology).