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  March 5, 2001

UConnCares Council Boosts Customer Service

To a successful retailer, customer service is a fact of life - something that's practiced every day in dealing with the public, because poor service soon means no business. In health care, too, in today's era of fierce competition, fixed costs, and mobile and savvy consumers, customer service can make or break a clinical enterprise.

The UConnCares Council was formed at the Health Center last year to address various issues of customer service in a patient care setting. In less than a year, the council has expanded its responsibilities beyond the clinical environment to encompass initiatives, such as employee morale, employee recognition and training.

"We believe that a motivated, positive work force will be a key part of our future success," said Steven Strongwater, John Dempsey Hospital director and one of the organizers of the council. "The council has done a fabulous job identifying and motivating changes in our workplace."

Council members don't lack for ideas or initiative.

Early on, the council used the hospital's patient survey apparatus to work on customer service. But it soon became clear that the four-month cycle of the commercial survey service didn't allow for swift remedial action if required. So the council established its own overnight patient survey service, called the Husky Rater Report.

Now patients are asked daily and at discharge how they find the services, and the results are presented to floor managers that day or the next, for reflection or corrective action.

"The John Dempsey Hospital has a reputation for excellent care," said Ann Smith, chair of the UConnCares Council, director of patient relations and director of educational services. "That reputation was earned because of the high level of care we provide. But we needed a tool that allowed us to be even more responsive to patients' needs and the Husky rater program gave us that flexibility. "

Still, the secret to customer service is the employees providing it, and the council began to address employee issues last year, when local budget difficulties, workforce reductions and national health care uncertainties combined to lower morale.

The council devised the Getting to Know You event, featuring free food served by senior management and fun contests to encourage employees to interact. In order to take part in raffles for prizes - including much sought-after tickets to Husky athletic events - employees had to obtain signatures of senior managers, managers, and employees they didn't know. To make it easier for employees to participate, the picnics were held close to where they work and at various times to accommodate different shifts.

"It was a lot of fun," Smith says. "We still hear anecdotes about how people were able to physically meet someone they had been working with for years by telephone or e-mail."

The council also instituted a reward system for outstanding service, and recently presented its first Golden Paw Award to staff of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for their consistent excellent care and superior service.

Employee awards start with the Wow Award, a citation for a deed that goes above and beyond the requirements of the job. Someone observing an employee providing exemplary service can write to a member of the council or the Patient Relations staff. The deed-doer then receives a letter of thanks from the council or hospital director, via the employee's manager. Along with the letter comes a Husky Wow chocolate bar.

The next level is the Golden Paw Award, a team citation for "above and beyond commitment and excellence" and providing care with PAWS: Part of a Team; Awesome Attitude; Wonderful Work Ethic; and Superior Service. The Golden Paw Award winner receives a paw symbol to display on his or her identification badge, and a letter of thanks and commendation from the hospital director.

The council is now establishing a third level of award - the Husky Hero.

In addition, training sessions stimulated by the UConnCares Council and designed to heighten customer service awareness are scheduled this spring. The training program will begin with managers and progress to all staff, reflecting the approach that improving service isn't just a clinical initiative, it's a Health Center-wide commitment.

Members of the council include the hospital and University Medical Group directors; a physician; nurses; medical staff; union representati on; Health Center administrators, including representatives of human resources, finance, and communications; and ad hoc members.

"We're a work-in-progress," says Smith, the council chair. "We've done a lot in a short period of time, but there's plenty left to do. Customer service and employee morale are issues that will not decline in importance anytime soon."

Patrick Keefe