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Is Your Customer's Point of View a Puzzle? (Mystery Shopping)

Every day the healthcare business is growing more and more competitive. This competitive battleground is being fueled by an informed consumer base that carefully researches every option in response to skyrocketing healthcare costs. Amid efforts to win and sustain business, healthcare facilities and hospitals are increasingly looking for ways to improve the patient experience. As such, many facilities have turned to mystery shoppers.

Healthcare mystery shopping is very similar to retail mystery shopping. Healthcare organizations contract the service of an agency, which then sends employees to pose as customers/patients and later report back on how they were treated.

Mystery shoppers can provide healthcare organizations with a unique competitive advantage. Armed with specific details in regard to customer and operational services, organizations can leverage this information to improve the overall quality of care.

Mystery shoppers provide several benefits, including (but not limited to) the following:

An improved patient experience. Mystery shoppers provide something that no other survey, questionnaire or focus group can offer: a minute-to-minute account of a real patient experience. Healthcare facilities that use mystery shoppers say the reports have led to a number of changes in the patient experience, including improved estimates of wait times, better explanations of medical procedures, escorts for patients who have gotten lost, and even less-stressful programming on the television in the waiting room.

A subjective point of view. We all have preconceived ideas and opinions about where we work. However, a mystery shopper has a subjective, outside view that can provide your organization with an unbiased perspective.

Increased revenues and patient retention. Whether it’s hiring someone to grade your staff on how long they let the phone ring or keep people on hold, mystery shopping is another way to anticipate issues that patients may have. When your organization is aware of these issues, it can begin the process to rectify them. Because of mystery shoppers, the quality of care and service will be improved. As a result, more patients will be retained.

Where to Start
The first step to mystery shopping is finding the right agency or third party that can provide you with the people and services you require. Perhaps your organization needs several older mystery shoppers to get an idea on how your staff treats the elderly. Or maybe you need help determining exactly what your problem areas are and how to approach them. A good agency will be able to provide you with both these types of resources and expertise.

Once you’ve selected an agency and have outlined what your organization wants to discover, the mystery shoppers will perform tasks based your predefined criteria. These tasks may include the following:

* Going through a noninvasive procedure.
* Making a phone call to schedule an appointment.
* Taking a tour of the facility.
* Asking for information about the facility or a procedure.

Mystery Shopper Study Catches Many Hospitals Off-Guard
People who shop for pricing and financial assistance information at hospitals have a difficult time getting answers, according to a report released by the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF). In the three-month study, mystery shoppers posed as uninsured patients requesting pricing information for elective procedures at 64 hospitals in five regions in California. Their experience shows that there is a serious communications gap between hospitals and prospective patients, a gap that has negative implications for the increasing number of patients who pay all or part of their medical bills. Mystery shoppers contacted each hospital both in person and by telephone for answers to straightforward questions regarding the price of one of 25 elective procedures or tests. The study found that obtaining a price depended primarily upon luck and persistence, and the experiences varied greatly.

Mystery shoppers may make inquiries over the phone, go to the actual facility, or in extreme cases, fake symptoms. To remember details while remaining undercover, some shoppers may hide tape recorders in their bags, jot details down in appointment books, and/or go to the restroom to take notes.

After shoppers finish their task, they should compose a narrative of the entire experience that shares information such as the names of each person they talked with and how they felt during each interaction. The shoppers should also rate their interactions (i.e., on a scale of 1 to 5) based on the standards first set out by your organization.

The Next Steps
Once your mystery shoppers report back to you, it’s key to use the information to make positive changes. For example, perhaps the mystery shoppers discover that the staff answering the phones is forwarding a large percentage of calls to the wrong departments. Perhaps the mystery shoppers also discover that those answering the phones don’t know the answers to some basic questions. After identifying problems like these, your organization should come up with guidelines and resources for the operators so that they can answer callers’ questions and transfer them to the right locations.

Oftentimes, the agency that provided the mystery shoppers will offer services and solutions to help your organization address the identified problem areas.

You’ll also want to make sure that you focus on any positive feedback the shoppers provide. Reward employees who got praise from mystery shoppers with small cash prizes, gift cards, better parking spaces, and public recognition, such as engraving their name on a wall plaque.

Lastly, when you retain the services of mystery shoppers, be sure to keep it under wraps. Many facilities make the mistake of telling their staff that mystery shoppers will be showing up (without saying exactly when). As a result, some staff and doctors feel spied upon. In addition, some staff may "put on a show," acting in ways they normally wouldn’t. This can result in the mystery shopper gathering inaccurate data. You ultimately want your staff to go about their work as they would any other day. So when it comes to mystery shopping, mum is the word!

Bottom line: Mystery shoppers ultimately provide a means for organizations to pinpoint otherwise unknown problem areas. Facilities can thus use this information to enhance the patient and customer experience. And with the advent of consumer-driven healthcare, organizations simply can’t afford to run a business that doesn’t impress patients and retain customers.