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Is your intake department a 'growth engine'?

September 1, 2010
by Lynn Sucher, MC, LPC, CEDS and Amy Lashway, MA, LPC
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In a June 7, 2010 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Customer Service as a Growth Engine,” it was noted that many companies are currently seeing a direct correlation between the quality of customer service and market share. In a survey of 1,405 companies late last year by Accenture, customer service ranked as the first area businesses would increase funding for, as the economy recovers. The article went on to state that “businesses are changing their approach, too, dedicating more of their efforts to the customer service segments considered most lucrative.”

How does customer service affect the behavioral health industry? Industry executives often miss that their intake/admissions department can significantly increase revenue if they allocate funds for ongoing customer service training and provide strong department leadership, adequate phone coverage and detailed tracking information. This is often the department that receives an inadequate operating budget, little consideration and minimal training.

There is a significant correlation between a well-trained intake staff and an increase in average daily census and revenue. But how many treatment facilities let phone calls roll to voice mail, lack appropriate after-hours coverage, have intake staff that cannot answer clinical questions, or undervalue the importance of their intake team? Staff members in this key department are often underpaid and lack specific, ongoing feedback. Without the intake department, there is no business. With a great team, one can expect revenue and census to increase significantly.

Hire the best

Those of us at Treatment Consultants work in this arena on a daily basis and understand the importance of customer service and how it directly affects census. We encourage our clients to offer potential intake/admissions personnel higher salaries, which will attract individuals with strong clinical backgrounds and who understand how to build relationships and deliver an admission.

Good intake people must possess both clinical and organizational skills, as well as a warm and caring phone presence. We have developed a specific interview process that increases the chances of finding a great intake coordinator or director with excellent closing skills.

Once someone is hired, what is the training process? This should be a specific, written training program, including role playing and training modules that address the variety of situations each intake coordinator will face every day. We further recommend that these staff members spend time observing the clinical components of the program. This training process must be completed before an actual phone call is answered.

Lynn sucher, mc, lpc, ceds
Lynn Sucher, MC, LPC, CEDS

It is important to remember that people are shopping for treatment options in this economy. Often, a facility is chosen not only on the basis of the clinical program or the amenities, but as a result of the relationship with the intake person. Great customer service is the key.

The intake/admissions department must have more than ongoing training. This department requires strong leadership. Supervisors should be coaches, listening for problem areas, addressing issues and providing support. How many calls does each staff member take each day? Are they overwhelmed, or missing calls? What do they do when the phone isn't ringing? Who is monitoring the follow-up process? Are staff members logging each call with the appropriate information? Are they experiencing burnout and losing some of their customer service quality? A competent, experienced director of intake should be able to turn the department into a “growth engine.”

Teamwork essential

The other issue we address is how well the marketing team and the intake department work together. This is critical. We encourage our client facilities to combine the two departments, led by a director of intake and marketing. We have found that when these two departments have communication problems and don't develop respect and synergy, the potential for increasing revenue falls dramatically.

What about phone coverage? Is it enough to give an intake coordinator a cell phone to carry over the weekend or during the evening? What are your hours of coverage and how many people are on call? Most importantly, does your intake line ever roll to voicemail? Each voicemail equals a loss in revenue. Many treatment centers pay thousands of dollars a month to make the phone ring, and then no one is there to answer in person. The customer continues shopping.

If you are a manager at a facility, consider spending a day in the intake department. Listen to the calls, talk with your coordinators and assess your systems. Remember, an excellent intake/admissions team will allow your facility not only to increase revenue, but to be better able to work with those who are reaching out for our help.

Lynn Sucher, MC, LPC, CEDS, is President of Treatment Consultants ( Amy Lashway, MA, LPC, is Co-Founder of Treatment Consultants. They offer remote intake and consulting services. Sucher's e-mail address is Addiction Professional 2010 September-October;8(5):38